Worm by Mark Bowden is about malicious hackers.

It’s out there. Waiting. Chances are, you’ve never heard of it. Nobody knows who controls it, or why. Only that they’re malicious hackers. No one knows what it will do. But its destructive capacity is terrifying.

Welcome to the world of cyber war! And, no, this is NOT science fiction.

“It” is the Conficker Worm, an arcane name (an insider’s joke) for the most powerful “malware” — malicious software — yet encountered on the Internet. First detected in November 2008, Conficker is a devilishly clever bit of programming that took advantage of a vulnerability in the Windows operating system. Microsoft immediately moved to “patch” the vulnerability, but therein lay the problem: Windows is the most-pirated software of all, so hundreds of millions of computers were running versions of Windows without the patch — all of them vulnerable to Conficker (and to hundreds of other dangerous programs that malicious hackers now knew how to embed their work in Windows).

Worm: The First Digital World War by Mark Bowden ★★★★☆

Mark Bowden, the very capable author of Blackhawk Down, tells the story in Worm of a group that included many of the world’s top computer security experts who privately came together early in 2009 to combat Conficker. At first, they were confined exclusively to the private sector, and their work was informal. Eventually, they managed to gain the attention of senior government officials and — slowly, reluctantly — obtain limited official support from the U.S. and Chinese governments. The group, known among themselves as the Conficker Cabal, even managed to get onto the White House agenda late in the game, as Conficker was upgraded once and then again — because the worm represented nothing less than an existential threat to the Internet itself.

I did say the potential was terrifying, didn’t I?

Bowden is a superb journalist and a capable writer, as Blackhawk Down made clear. However, Delta Force soldiers pinned down in a firefight in Mogadishu make for great copy. Geeks exchanging emails about technical material don’t. Bowden does an excellent job explaining in plain English the nature of Conficker and how it operates, and he does his best to sketch the members of the Cabal in three diimensions, but the result is hardly a page-turner. Still, Worm is a very important book, because it brings to light just how vulnerable is the infrastructure of the world we live in.

And, oh yes, the Cabal managed to fight Conficker to something of a standstill. But they couldn’t destroy it, and to date they’ve never found the malicious hackers who created it. Conficker is still out there.

For further reading

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