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The future in digital warfare

Do you know who's looking at your personal information?

Worm: The First Digital World War.

Image of Worm: The First Digital World War
Author: Mark Bowden
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (2011)
Binding: Hardcover, 288 pages

Kai Ryssdal: The White House came right out yesterday and said something it's really only hinted at before: A guy named Robert Bryant -- he's the head of U.S. counter-intelligence -- said the Russian and Chinese governments are using cyberattacks to steal American technology and then use it for their own economic gain.

Cyber crime's an equal opportunity offender, too. Earlier this year, a European criminal group was arrested for draining about $72 billion from personal bank accounts, using an especially malicious bit of software called the Conficker worm.

Mark Bowden writes about it in his new book, "Worm: The First Digital World War." Good to have you with us.

Mark Bowden: Thank you, Kai.

Ryssdal: Tell me what this worm does, the Conficker worm?

Bowden: What it does mostly is infect computers, connect them to one another and set them up so that they can receive orders from a remote controller.

Ryssdal: Sounds very Armaggeddon-like, I've got to tell you.

Bowden: Well it can be. I mean, if you can link together a million -- or in this case 10 to 12 million -- computers, you have a remarkably powerful, essentially super computer at your bidding. And you could use it for all manners of things, including launching an attack that literally could crash the Internet itself.

Ryssdal: You know, as I hear you say "Conficker," and I've been mispronouncing it the whole time -- who names these things?

Bowden: Well, this one was named by a group of engineers at Microsoft. One of the first things that this very cunning little piece of software did when it invaded a computer was attempted to contact a well-known spam distributor online called TrafficConverter.biz. So they were fooling around with the syllables TrafficConverter.biz and they came up with Conficker, which was, well 'ficker' is German for the sexual act, and their feelings about the worm were that it was a real 'motherficker.'

Ryssdal: Right. So this book will sell because it has your name and it's getting lots of press and all that, but it seems to me that there's a disconnect between the message you deliver in this book -- which is that these things can be really, really destructive and we have to pay attention -- and the fact that most people just want their computers to work, man, we don't care what goes on in the guts.

Bowden: Well I think that's fair. I would hope that anyone who reads the book would better understand why botnets like the Conficker botnet pose a very serious threat. Not so much to the individual computer user, although it does that too, but primarily to society at large. Nowadays, if you have the knowledge and a computer and you're connected or control something like the Conficker botnet, you could wreak terrific havoc on modern society all by your lonesome.

Ryssdal: Well you know, along those lines, and to pull of the subtitle of the book, which is "The First Digital World War," the White House has started to pay attention to this stuff and people are, I think, growing in awareness. What are we doing, though, that can legitimately fight them? How do we defend ourselves?

Bowden: Well I think ultimately, Kai, the answer is going to be to create some sort of parallel Internet that can provide for a higher level of security. The Internet that we have, which is a wonderful tool, was created basically to make it easier to share information, to exchange data. And that's a great function. But it turns out there's a lot of data that we as individuals or that banks or credit card companies or the United States Government has a very legitimate need to keep private. And the Internet is not really very good at that.

Ryssdal: Not to get all Machiavellian here, but one has to assume, perhaps even hope, that the Department of Defense and the White House and the administration have their own botnet army ready to go, right?

Bowden: I would assume that's the case. The most famous instance of a targeted piece of malware in the last few years was Stuxnet, which of course took out the uranium enrichment activities in Iran. I think cyber warfare is very much a part of the modern world now, and particularly in the last few years, I do think the federal government has gotten a lot more attuned to the need to both defend our networks in this country -- although I don't think they're capable of doing it just yet -- but also to develop the ability to use these things as weapons ourselves.

Ryssdal: Mark Bowden's latest book is called "Worm: The First Digital World War." Mark, thanks a lot.

Bowden: My pleasure, Kai. Thank you.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

Worm: The First Digital World War.

Image of Worm: The First Digital World War
Author: Mark Bowden
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (2011)
Binding: Hardcover, 288 pages

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