Book Review: Worm

Worm: The First Digital World War by Mark Bowden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So, can Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, make TCP/IP and the domain name system exciting? The answer is yes and no.

The 2008 Conficker worm infected millions of computers to create a “botnet” of zombie desktops and laptops awaiting a command. A small band of Internet geeks united in an unprecedented world wide effort to combat it, and Bowden does do a good job of structuring their story so that you want to keep turning the pages (or in my case, changing the audio book CD) to find out what happens next.

The Internet is a decentralized network with no one organization or government in charge of it; and likewise this story doesn’t have just one hero and one villain. Instead it has an army of “white hat” security experts pitting their skills against “black hat” hackers.

Bowden tells the story from the point of view of ten or so key players, quoting email exchanges between the members that are sometimes eloquent, sometimes long-winded. The book is at its most dull when it focuses on these emails; and at its most exciting when it brings to life in-person conflicts like that of Internet defender Rodney Joffe heading to Capitol Hill to alert the feds of the Conficker threat. Bowden also does a great job of explaining the Internet’s infrastructure such as the domain name system and root servers in a way that non-techies can understand.

In full disclosure, I’m not a techie but I do work at one of the organizations featured in this non-fiction book. So the little errors that slipped through research and proofing stood out to me and made me less inclined to trust the book from the start. For example, he calls ICANN the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers when it is really the INTERNET Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. He also states that ICANN took over the domain name system in 1998 from Stanford Research Institute, but it was actually the University of Southern California that turned over the reigns. But once I got over those details, I appreciated Bowden’s story telling and context.

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