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Review: Internet: Worm: The First Digital World War by Mark Bowden

Doomsday was supposed to be April 1, 2009, according to some of the smartest people on the planet, a coalition of technology experts who had banded together in the face of the greatest threat to the internet yet.

Conficker was said to be the most dangerous and cunning computer virus ever created, which, on April 1, 2009, was programmed to do, well, nobody knows what exactly.

The band of expert volunteers, who dubbed themselves the Cabal, feared everything from the worst -- nuclear plants exploding -- to temporary disruption of the entire internet to nothing at all.

Conficker scared the hell out of the Cabal because they quickly realised the people behind it were at least as smart if not better than the good guys. It was a self-replicating virus -- known as a worm -- that spread alarmingly quickly, infecting Windows computers.

Within a few weeks of its release into the wild in late 2008, Conficker had secretly installed itself on millions of machines worldwide. Crucially, it did nothing but hide at the core of the computer, waiting for instructions from its master on April 1, 2009.

Such an army of machines under the control of a remote mastermind is known as a 'botnet'. Virus writers have moved on from their early pranks of just crashing computers. Now botnets created by viruses are used for lucrative criminal gain, such as sending spam or blackmailing prominent websites.

As Mark Bowden says: "If all bots in a large net worked together, they could crack most codes, plunder just about any database in the world and potentially destroy almost any computer network."

The Cabal recognised Conficker as incredibly sophisticated, using technical wizardry to protect itself and hide its true purpose. But they were no slouches themselves -- Bowden portrays them jokingly as superheroes from a Marvel comic.

Much of the book is taken up with a cat-and-mouse game as the Cabal members attempt to get one step ahead of their mysterious adversaries -- lone hackers or state-sponsored cyberterrorists, we'll never know -- only for the bad guys to move the goalposts with an upgraded version of Conficker.

Bowden manages to cut through the dry technicalities of such a complicated digital war but the book is undermined by the fact that so far Conficker has been a damp squib. Nothing happened on April 1, 2009, nor anything of note since. Did the worm's authors get scared or are they biding their time?

Worryingly, three years later, Conficker still sits unseen on more than six million Windows PCs worldwide. Watching and waiting. The bad guys haven't gone away, you know.

Ronan Price

Indo Review