The subtitle for this book is: The First Digital World War. That’s overstating it, to be honest. The book focuses on the creation of the world’s largest botnet by a worm called Conficker back in 2008.

At its peak, it was estimated to have infected between 9 and 15 million machines, and even as late as 2011 was still on roughly 1.7 million. That made it the largest botnet recorded. If all of the devices were used to transmit data together, there was a real possibility it would have overwhelmed the internet’s core infrastructure, effectively stopping it for a period of time.

To combat the worm, a loose team of researchers, anti-virus companies, registrars and others formed the Conficker Working Group (internally known as The Cabal). Having pulled the worm apart, they set about trying to defeat it, largely by pre-registering all the domains the software generated each day in order to check for new instructions.

This was a vast effort covering a huge number of top-level domains, which required international cooperation the likes of which were thought impossible. All while trying to open the eyes of the various governmental departments responsible for cyber security and get them on it too.

My favourite book in this genre is Clifford Stoll’s The Cuckoo’s Egg, which is more a diary of how one man noticed, then traced, a hacker who passed through his system. This book isn’t on a par with that.

It’s short to start with (about six hours in audiobook form), and most of that is filled with unrelated material. The first two hours are basically a history of computing. Then you have the various aggrandizing descriptions of those involved (not their fault), as well as endless quoting of Cabal communications, a lot of which were bickering.

There’s very little technical detail, and it seems to come down to the only defence being the pre-registration of domains. Which proved pointless as one variant introduced its own peer-to-peer communication, so it didn’t require a domain. The only reason we didn’t see digital Armageddon was because the owner didn’t unleash it.

Much has changed since these events took place, six years is a long time in IT terms. Although I suspect the reaction by government departments is still equally slow and ineffective. It doesn’t fill you with confidence for the future of cyber defence.

Christopher Lane provides a precise, clear commentary, and seems to understand the material enough to not simple recite it in a monotone.

I was disappointed about both the layman’s language in most of the book, it read more like a long newspaper article designed for the masses than a book for those interested in cybercrime. That made it bloated, but also lacking in the technical details of how you could combat a threat like this.

I’ve yet to find a more recent tale of tracking hackers to match The Cuckoo’s Egg (released in 1989), the search continues.

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This was an copy of the book

Reviewed: 24th August 2014