Book Review : Worm, the first digital world war

WORM, the first digital world war, by Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down.


The Conficker worm infected its first computer in November 2008 and within a month had infiltrated 1.5 million machines in 195 countries. Banks, telecommunications companies and critical government networks – including the British Parliament and the French and German military were infected. No-one had ever seen anything like it.

By January 2009, the worm lay hidden in at least 8 million computers and the network of linked machines that it had created was big enough that attack might crash the world’s online infrastructure. Worm is the gripping story of a group of hackers, researchers, millionaire Internet entrepreneurs and computer security experts who united to defend the Internet from the Conficker virus. It is an unforgettable account of the first digital world war.

Just as we failed in the past to invest our physical infrastructure – our roads, our bridges and rails – we’ve failed to invest in the security of our digital infrastructure… We saw this in the disorganised response to Conficker. This status quo is no longer acceptable – not when there’s so much at stake.

~ President Barack Obama.

Meant to write this review a few months ago when the book was fresh in my head and it’s since gone back to the library so it will be a cursory comment from memory.

Worm, The First Digital World War by Mark Bowden

It’s a strange kind of book in many ways. I picked it up thinking it was fiction but it was more a research after the fact, with the author interviewing the people at the forefront of the ‘war’ and putting it down in book form. As such it’s actually hard to say who the target audience was. People looking for an exciting story would be bored rigid, while people with a lot more interest and experience in the subject would be turning pages thinking, “Hmm, that’s not quite right, I seem to recall…” and similar thoughts. As he readily admits though, he’s an author, not a programmer or technie, but he had extensive data from those involved at the time and I was left wondering whether my memory was playing up or if he’d filled in gaps, particularly with the more historic parts.

Still, if was interesting enough if you like that sort of thing and it did have one or two funny parts, I thought. One of the collaborators (Rick Wesson maybe) gave a talk to government officials in Washington D.C. and then had another one the next day in which he was dismissed for fear mongering, having dated news and questioned as to why he had access to classified documents. It turns out the official he dealt with the previous day had his papers retyped on government headed paper, classified under the auspice of National Security – and then she presented the brief to the president as her own work!

Moving from a factual digital battlefront to fictitious one – this time based around the activities of the NSA – is Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress. (Yes, he of the Da Vinci Code).

Digital Fortress by Dan Brown

Back cover blurb first:

When the National Security Agency’s invincible code-breaking machine encounters a mysterious code it cannot break, the agency call in its head cryptographer, Susam Fletcher, a brilliant, beautiful mathematician. What she uncovers sends shock waves through the corridors of power. The NSA is being held hostage – not by guns or bombs, but by a code so complex that if released would cripple U.S. intelligence.

Caught in an accelerating tempest of secrecy and lies, Fletcher battles to save the agency she believes in. Betrayed on all sides, she finds herself fighting not only for her country but for her life, and in the end, for the life of the man she loves…

It is particularly interesting to note the dedications, which include a paragraph saying:

” Also… a quiet thank you for the two faceless ex-NSA cryptographers who made invaluable contributions via anonymous remailers. Without them this book would not have been written.”

The intriguing question is – did he add that to help sell the book – or did he indeed get send certain information that gave him the idea for the book?

As a story it’s a good read though, like most of his books, it has certain annoying flaws if you are aware of them. I’ll backtrack a moment first though. What I found most interesting about the book is not so much the story as the time line…

The plot basically revolves around the NSA using a secret super computer to spy on everyones emails, decrypting files in minutes rather the months and years and giving themselves back doors into encryption algorithms used by ISP’s etc and generally being very secretive about spying. Plus the whole government operatives and assassins trying to kill the heroines love interest to spice the book up.

Now, the book is copyright 1998 and the Corgi edition I have was published in 2004. Long before various documentaries on quantum computing revealed how the NSA is leading the field of research into this and more to the point long before Edward Snowden made his revelations public about them doing this very same backdoor trick. Then, only very recently we have the Heartbleed bug affecting OpenSSL which the usually reticent US government was altogether to fast to deny any involvement with. OpenSSL started life in 1998 – just as Dan Brown, furnished with anonymous NSA disclosures, completes this novel. Don’t you just love conspiracy theories – especially when in this case, shadowed as it is by the Prism leaks it comes to light that it’s wholly grounded in truth and actual cover-ups and has Obama backpedaling whilst defending the practice.

Doesn’t it just make you want to read the book?

Against it though, the plot also revolves around an unknown rogue programmer with the code name NDakota and how the brightest cryptologists on the entire planet couldn’t crack his identity when it was staring them in the face the entire time. Forget the whole forest and trees routine and artistic license, just no. The type of people in the story couldn’t NOT decode it. I know how they think and they would solve said riddle without a thought, it’s the same wired way of thinking that looks at a 1 2 4 8 and adds 16 without pause then goes on to add 32, 64 and spins off into chess parables. Unless of course it really did happen like that in which case I’ll hold my hands up and say that smart people can be really dim sometimes. But no, they would have solved it, instantly. The last part of the book was clever though, I liked, albeit of the rather cliché 1 second left on the clock variety.

It you want a really deep book to ponder other though, I can recommend this:

How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? The Net’s impact on Our Minds and Future, edited by John Brockman (of

Given the premise, the editor goes off and asks this question to 154 of the leading intellectuals in the world, scientists, artists, creative thinkers. People like Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society; professor of cosmology and astrophysics; master, Trinity College, University of Cambridge; author of ‘Our Final Century: The 50/50 Threat to Humanity’s Survival. Adds in the thoughts of Xani Jardin, tech culture journalist and partner with Boing Boing and finishes with an entry from Larry Sanger, cofounder of Wikipedia.

Some I completely agreed with, a few I thought were utterly pretentious, but all gave me something to think about and it took me a while to actually finish the book as I’d often sit and think a bit after reading something, or stare out the window, remembering a distance past of slow dial-ups to bulletin board, long before the Internet surfaced – or a futuristic William Gibson Neuromancer existence Google would like us to embrace (and other are bringing ever closer) were we are literally connected to the Internet. No thanks!

If you like intellectual books, it certainly is that.

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