War of the cyberworm Author Mark Bowden tells Chris Wasser about the secret virus that could be lurking in your computer
Ignorance is a wonderful place to start. Indeed, it's a philosophy that Mark Bowden has applied to many of his journalistic endeavours, and never more so than the time he set out to write a book about "the first digital world war".
In fact, Bowden had only "the most rudimentary understanding" of how computers worked. But then, the award-winning American journalist and author was well used to tackling difficult subjects (Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, Killing Pablo).
Even so, it would take time and patience to get his head around the Conficker worm.
"At its most basic, Conficker is a little piece of software that's designed to illicitly invade the core of a computer," he explains. "And it does so for the purpose of turning over control of that computer to a remote operator, but then, as importantly, spreading itself and connecting millions of computers together, so what you end up with -- what the worm exists to do, primarily, is to create a botnet, which is effectively a super computer."
In November 2008, the Conficker worm infected its first computer. Where did it come from? What was its purpose? Who was behind it? Nobody knew. Within a month, the worm had infiltrated 1.5 million computers across the globe. Whereas a virus relies on human assistance to invade a computer, a worm is a form of malware that doesn't need our help. It spreads all by itself. And the Conficker worm was spreading fast.
It left some of the most intelligent researchers around the world dumbfounded. It infected home systems, business networks, telecommunications companies, and even the UK's Defence Ministry and Parliament system.
It was capable of anything -- it could even bring down the internet itself. A voluntary group of researchers, entrepreneurs and computer security experts (dubbed The Cabal) joined forces to stop the Conficker worm. But it is still an on-going concern.
"My publisher has a tendency to want to promote the books that I write as thrillers," says Bowden (60), "and people are used to thrillers having a sort of Hollywood ending where everything is neatly wrapped up and the bad guys are arrested and put away. This is real life."
"Conficker has, in fact, done something very dramatic in the world of cyber security," he continues, "and that is, that it's managed to create a very, very large and stable botnet that is under the control of its creator."
In the months following Conficker's first appearance, The Cabal struggled to fight off each new upgrade of the worm. It was a long time before the United States Government realised the enormity of the situation.
"The Obama Administration specifically noted Conficker as an illustration of how ill-prepared the government was," he explains. "There are steps that the government might have taken, and could still take, to cripple the Conficker worm and, for various reasons of their own, they didn't. I think they didn't really understand the nature of the threat."
Bowden likens Conficker to a nuclear weapon. But the real mystery surrounds a) its creators, and b) its designed purpose.
"There are two theories," he says. "The prevalent theory, and the one I think is probably correct, is that the botnet was created by a group of experts employed by an organised crime syndicate in Eastern Europe for the purpose of making money. Portions of it have been leased to enable criminal activity, like stealing $72m from American bank accounts last year. That ring was broken up and the people involved were arrested.
"Another theory is that the Conficker botnet is the creation of a nation state which built it as a weapon, and just because you've successfully built and tested [a weapon], doesn't mean you necessarily use it right away."
When it came to telling the story of The Cabal, this select group of professionals (whom Bowden likens to the X-Men) invited the author into their world.
"If I didn't have a prior reputation for writing decent books, I think they might have been a little less willing to bear with me," he laughs. "They were excited about the idea of being portrayed -- they're proud of the work they did."
Indeed, Bowden's worldwide success as an author came at a time when he had already established himself as a widely respected journalist and reporter. A film adaptation of 1999's Black Hawk Down opened up a whole new world for Bowden (who is now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair), offering various opportunities and, most importantly, the freedom to work on whatever he wanted.
"Having the commercial success enables you to just pick and choose and do the things that you really are interested in," he says. "But I still am primarily and will always be someone who is just a reporter and a writer who likes a true story and who likes to sort of dig in and find out what the hell is going on in the real world."
Worm: The First Digital World War is out now