by Will Byrnes | 2/3/2014
" There is a war being waged in the world today. Not one of the many you read about in newspapers (or newsfeeds) or the ones you see on your televisions and computer screens. This war is going on while we sleep, eat our breakfasts and go about our business, in our cities and suburbs, in the homes of our major industries, in our home computers. Forget the annoying daily viruses that attack, primarily, Windows systems, spewing unwanted spam; forget the unwanted pop-ups that emanate from the same source; forget the Blue Screen of Death and similar results from other fun system-stoppers that flood the lines connecting our machines to the world. This is an ongoing cyberwar, complete with black hats and white hats. There are folks out there who have devised a truly weaponized form of the evil sheiss we have to cope with every day. This new invader is capable of taking down the entire system. It is robust, almost impervious to correction even once detected, and it has spread itself, functioning like millions of sleeper cells throughout our electronic world, and it waits for instructions. It might be told to send out the usual sort of sexual spam we have all seen. No biggie. But then it might take down the entire internet by flooding certain sites with millions of hits. It might be instructed to disable the electrical grid, or occupy Wall Streetâ€™s computer systems. (Yes, I know some might cheer, but the damage would extend well beyond the street) And just because we do not yet have a body count that does not mean that this war does not have casualties. Businesses that have had to shut down because of such attacks, hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe billions, that might have been spent on more productive uses, but which have been allocated to cyber defense. Thank god there are some heroes out there who are making our lives a bit, a lot safer, by indulging their need to do the right thing.
Each chapter is introduced by a quote from the X-Men comic book series. It is entirely appropriate, as Bowden sees his core characters as people with special powers. They are truly superheroes, operating on their own, outside government, for the most part, to fight off an invasion that most of us did not notice at all. The X-Men of Bowdenâ€™s tale are the ones who first caught on to this invasion, the ones with the technical savvy to actually appreciate how powerful, how dangerous, how sinister and how clever this invader is. It is thanks to them that our electronic world has not returned to pencil-and-paper accounting, and our trains have not been dashing into each other head on. I bet you will not recognize a single name among this group. No Steve Jobs or Bill Gates here, although many of the team members have done quite nicely for themselves. These Jean Grays, Logans, Kitty Prides and Professor Xaviers (although all male) combined their brainpower and did what needed to be done, even though it meant having to open their own checkbooks, and strain their home lives, to cover some of the considerable costs entailed. Ironically, they call themselves â€œThe Cabal.â€
Bowden, author of Blackhawk Down and Killing Pablo knows adventure, and there is plenty to be had here. Not a car chase in sight, but if your heart does not race while reading this, you might want to get it checked.
What is most amazing is how uninvolved our government has been in protecting the nation from assaults, real and potential, on our infrastructure, our financial system, and our defense systems, by not only bored, gifted teens, but by high level criminal enterprises and nation states. Actually not so surprising, given that the administration in question is the one that ignored repeated warnings of impending terrorist attacks in 2001. The current administration has taken the challenge more seriously.
I have only one caveat for readers of this exciting book. Although it has clearly been written with a general audience in mind, there is enough geekish detail here to cause more than a bit of befuddlement. Bowden does a pretty good job of de-teching the material, and I scooted past it easily enough, but I am not a typical reader for this, having spent a few decades fiddling with bits and bytes. So take with a grain of salt my sense that the tech will not get in the way. For any who find that absolutely needing to grasp all the technical details impairs their reading experience, I suggest blowing past it. It is not critical for you to get the minutiae. The gist is plenty, and it is substantial. Worm is a page-turner. Be an early bird and catch it.
There are more than a couple of books on the subject out there. I have read only a few. Neil Stephenson offers a fictionalized version of how clever techies might make mayhem in the world in Reamde. Richard Clarke has real world expertise in this area. He has a clear notion of what is going on, what is possible and what we should be afraid of. He writes both non-fiction Cyberwar and fiction, Breakpoint.
QUOTES - I read this on a Nook, so the page numbers might not track with the hardcover
P84 â€“ Networks connected to the internet are vulnerable even if protected with hardware and software firewalls and other security mechanisms. The government, military, business and economic institutions, key infrastructure elements, and the population at large of the United States are completely dependent on the Internet. Internet-connected networks operate the national electric grid and distribution systems for fuel. Municipal water treatment and waste treatment are controlled through such systems. Other critical networks include the air traffic control system, the system linking the nationâ€™s financial institutions, and the payment systems for Social Security and other government assistance on which many individuals and the overall economy depend. A successful attack on these internet-connected networks could paralyze the united States.â€ â€“ [This is from a U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission report to Congress.]
P 170 â€“ in Modern warfare there is no such thing as unqualified victory, or unconditional defeatâ€¦Casualties mount. The public gets surly. The treasury coffers bottom out. The ruling party gets dumped. One no longer wins; one claims victory. Often both sides do. And sometimes both are rightâ€¦in their own way. "