Worm: The First Digital World War
Robert Citino of the University of North Texas recently wrote of military history that “its academic footprint continues to shrink.” (The American Historical Review, October 2007) While scholarly military history may remain marginalized in our schools and bookstores, a new generation of writers like Mark Bowden, Sebastian Junger, Michael Hastings and Malcolm Gladwell (I am thinking of his essay on the Norden bombsight and its effect on U.S. bombing missions during World War II) have embraced elements of a newer form of military history and brought it directly into the mainstream. In this grouping, Mark Bowden may be first among equals. Worm: The First Digital World War is a stellar example of this new school of writing about the military (without seeming to).
As a teacher at a military college, I am constantly looking for clear and accessible writing on all aspects of war and cultural conflicts. These can be hard to find. While I enjoy reading more scholarly writers like Russell Weigley, John Nagl and John Keegan, my students do not. They will, however, will read Mark Bowden all day. Mark Bowden is a military historian without meaning to be one. His deceptively easy-to-read, powerful storytelling opens avenues of complexity to his readers: the author’s natural gifts for storytelling allow him to include dozens of sidebars and in-depth explanations. Now Mark Bowden’s interests have led to one of the most compelling topics of all: the new model of warfare.
Mark Bowden Interview
Worm: The First Digital War
Is this a forced concept, or is there a continuity in your work, from “Black Hawk Down” to “The Finish: Killing Bin Laden” to “Worm?” Did you go into writing this project thinking that this was military history?
No, it wasn’t something that I set out to do. That wasn’t my initial impetus. It was a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal about the Conficker worm that caught my attention. It was clear that this had frightening potential. A lot of people were very concerned about it.
I realized after reading that story that I did not understand it. That was my reason for writing the book, to understand it.
For me the motivation is often to figure things out, to understand this world I live in. I knew I could ask some very good questions. For me that was the fun of this project. It was also my own introduction to how computers work, how the internet functions. As I was interviewing subjects for the book, I was stopping people almost every line. “Tell me what a server is.” “Tell me what a router is.” “How is the internet actually structured?” “How is a program written?”
What would you like a general reader to take away from this?
One thing is that all of us rely more and more on the internet, without understanding what it is. Readers should have a rudimentary understanding of the modern world they live in.
I’d like for them to understand that this is a vulnerable environment. Information is not safe. Networks are not safe. There is more potential today for an individual to do harm than at any point in history.
You might look at [this book] as an effort to sound a warning. One of the surprising things about the narrative is that the only people who were paying attention to this attack were not part of the government at all. They were banging on doors, trying to make people understand
What this reveals is not just Conficker – which, as it turned out, is not being used for any nefarious purpose — was just a program that someone wrote and launched. This could have been done by anybody.
There is even a support structure for the criminally-minded. They didn’t have to write all that code on their own. They could go online and find someone who has already done the scut work for them; all they have do is target it.
What does this rising generation of soldiers not understand about war in the future?
There will probably always be a need for infantry or conventional arms. The battlefield is no longer limited to arenas of conflict where armed forces with weapons go at one another. Now if you want to attack Sony Pictures you don’t bomb their lots, you can gut them from the inside. You now have a way to reach into the brains of their operations. You can undermine it, you can shut down the whole communications system.
It used to be if you were working in the United States of America and you enjoyed the protection of their laws, you were relatively secure. The idea did not exist of a foreign country being able to infiltrate everything all of the automated processes that run our society – they way the Stuxnet virus shut down the Iranian nuclear facilities. The more we depend on the internet, the more we expose ourselves to outside influences.
I think war will be fought on many platforms. One of the things we always tried to do in war is to disrupt the transportation networks. That has become much easier to do. Telecommunications, air transportation, trains, interstate highway systems – all of them are tied to the internet.
The people who are really good at this can offer their services to the highest bidder. If you were in Nigeria, if you want to launch a cyber-attack against somebody, you can hire a mercenary.
Not all of this is terrible. One good thing about cyberwarfare; it can be waged in a proportional way. You can design a response that is extremely well-targeted, and that would effect only those intended. People complain about drones. Armed drones are far more precise and proportionate than any other method of attack by air, which goes a long way toward satisfying the constraints of just warfare. A drone enables you to watch a target for weeks or months, allowing for a far greater degree of certainty, and allowing you to choose a moment of attack that will endanger only those targeted. When you talk about moral warfare, here you can sculpt a response. I’ve thought a lot about drones. Computer warfare is even more precise, because you can take out one department, or one company. You can design a finely proportional, bloodless response. You can inflict precisely the damage that you want to.
What is next in this field? What topics regarding digital warfare would you hope writers and scholars might look into next?
I’d like to see writers explaining how we get hacked and what kind of responses the American government can make. Everyone needs to know how these viruses operate, how they are structured.
Worm: The First Digital World War
“Hey, we’re seeing something really weird.”
T.J. wasn’t surprised. He knew what it was. He had been waiting for a worm like this one for months.
He is a program manager for security at Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit, which is to say that he is engaged in ceaseless warfare.
Thus begins the semi-epic narrative of Worm: The First Digital World War, Mark Bowden’s excellent account of the battle over the Conficker worm. It was a battle that was waged out of sight, almost anonymously. This ingenious and dangerous malware virus first appeared in November of 2008 and soon infected 1.5 million computers across the globe. Its victims included banks, telecommunications companies, the British Parliament and the French and German militaries. The only effective resistance to Conficker’s worldwide attack came from a “disparate but gifted group” which Bowden alternately refers to as the Conficker Group, the Cabal, the Tribe, the white hats, the X-Men, Digital Detectives (all subsets of the Geek Tribe).
The book is structured a little like a caper movie. After Conficker’s initial appearance, in which the virus is noticed but largely ignored, the author introduces us to his cast of characters. This the Cabal, for whom the author clearly has great respect – a loose “fighting force” of software engineers and technicians who take on the challenge of containing Conficker just because it is the right thing to do. In his massive context-setting, Bowden gives us more than a biography of each protagonist, he goes back to explain earlier episodes (Code Red, Bagle, Melissa, Sircam, Blaster).
Malware in the first decade of the twenty-first century underwent something akin to the Cambrian Explosion …
The author takes us on a five-month rollercoaster ride as the Digital Detectives cross swords with the unseen foe. Like most armies, the reaction force acted with passion and determination. Like many armies, the reaction force is cut off from American society at large; the public had little idea of the desperate struggle that being fought on their behalf. Unlike most armies, the anti-Conficker battalion was voluntary, and acted independently of any government agency. The members funded the war off their credit cards (Rick Wesson spent up to $30,000 of his own money in a gambit to buy up domain names and thus limit Conficker). Unlike most armies, it ran as an almost flat organizational chart – everyone was in charge.
One of the book’s most urgent themes is the emergence of a new class of malware, the “access for sale” worm. This is perhaps the biggest portent for coming battles: cryber warfare is an enterprise that has “migrated to organized crime and nation states.” This is what Bowden identifies as part of the truly bad news to come out of Conficker:
Here is Bowden describing a precursor event, one that takes on greater significance the more we understand the true dimensions of the new warfare being outlined:
In September 2008, a group of Chinese hackers began marketing an exploit for $37 that attacked a hitherto unknown weakness at Port 445 of the Windows Operating System. The Chinese hackers were not breaking any laws. They did not attempt any criminal acts. Their product was just a tool for breaking into the heart of a computer running Windows.
How does he know all this? The answer, I think, is that he knows this because he has done his due-diligence, interviewing all of this real-life drama’s players as well as anyone else who can shed light on the broader implications of this first real digital war. One of Mark Bowden’s many attributes as a writer is a willingness to go wherever the story leads. His sidebars and explanations rarely seem arbitrary.
To the wider world, Conficker was just another doomsday moment that fizzled …
Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote about Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down that it is “a Woodward that outdoes even Woodward.” What he means by this, I think, is that Bowden is more than willing to get out and do the research: wherever the story goes, this is a writer who will do all the groundwork to support it. He is a journalist at heart. The author follows the story wherever it goes — to Bar-Ilan University in Israel, to the ALOHANET in Hawaii, to the East Room of the White House — and explains along the way. He doesn’t seem to care if he needs to explain Bill Gates’ early infatuation with the Altair 8080 or the theories of British science fiction writer John Brunner in order to give the reader a full understanding of his story. If it were me, I would balk; I would call my editor and ask if I really had to delve into all this.
What is the moral of the story? The only one may be that we don’t understand what is coming. Here is one of the conclusions he reaches:
History is done with Appomattox moments. Wars no longer end in ways anyone can describe as satisfactory, much less triumphant. In modern warfare there is no such thing as unqualified victory, or unconditional defeat … Modern wars peter out. 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.
This, to me is vintage Mark Bowden. He is smart and resourceful, and varies his prose style according to the needs of the story. Here is one of my favorite passages from Black Hawk Down:
Specialist Spalding was still behind the passenger door in the first truck with his rifle out the window, turned in the seat so he could line up his shots, when he was startled by a flash of light down by his legs. It looked like a laser beam shot through the door and up into his right leg. A bullet had pierced the steel of the door and the window, which was rolled down, and had poked itself and fragments of glass and steel straight up his leg from just above his knee all the way up to his hip. He had been stabbed by the shaft of light that poked through the door. He squealed.
“What’s wrong, you hit?” shouted Maddox.
And then another laser poked though, this one into his left leg. Spalding felt a jolt this time but no pain. He reached down to grab his right thigh and blood spurted out between his fingers. He was both distressed and amazed. The way the light had shot through. He still felt no pain. He didn’t want to look at it.
Then Maddox shouted, “I can’t see! I can’t see!”
What is remarkable here may be how much the author has left out of this clean, powerful account. He undoubtedly interviewed all the participants and was able to bring multiple perspectives and countless background details to bear on this situation. He chose to omit most of it for the sake of the story.
Bowden’s easy manner, as a writer, masks a depth of conviction about the process of writing. Almost any passage of his is easy to read. Yet beneath the facile surface is an iceberg of research. Here is a passage that shows a little of the writer’s effortless-seeming prose, describing one of his protagonists, giving an address at a technology conference:
His speech is highly technical, weirdly more powerful for its peculiar delivery, and, if you are paying close attention, darkly humorous. It frames the annals of global interconnection as a perfect instance of historical folly, meeting all the criteria set down by the historian Barbara Tuchman in her book The March of Folly: it was the action of a group, not an individual; it consistently chose the “boneheaded” course over others that were obviously correct; and the chosen course was not just something discovered to be mistaken in retrospect, but something known to be stupid in its own time.
Towards the end of World War II, George Patton tried to re-direct or almost re-shape American policy (in this case, to treat Soviet Russia not as an ally but as the new enemy). Towards the end of Worm: The First Digital World War, South African-born technology entrepreneur Rodney Joffe does the same thing: he writes a long memorandum to his colleagues. Among many other points he makes are these: “This isn’t a game;” “There is real evil in the world;” and, “What would it mean for the economy if the Fortune 500 all had their internal networks shut down for an hour?” The author is warning you and me about the new dimension of warfare coming towards us over on the horizon, just as Joffe is warning his colleagues.
Malcolm Gladwell in his recent review of a Steven Brill book, writes this:
A book like Mark Bowden’s “Black Hawk Down”—a Woodward that outdoes even Woodward—sets out to describe things as they actually happened, not things as filtered through one person’s idiosyncratic perspective. The currency of the Lewis is empathy. The currency of the Woodward is mastery—and nothing is more corrosive to the form than the suspicion that the author doesn’t grasp the full picture.
Mark Bowden grasps the full picture. Mark Bowden is paying close attention. Worm: The First Digital World War is a complex story well worth the reading, an important book for its cautionary warning as well as for it sheer narrative value.