The cyber side of it

Written by Sharad Raghavan | Updated: Feb 3 2013, 06:50am hrs
Zero Day: A Novel

Mark Russinovich

St Martins Press/Thomas Dunne Books: Rs 499, Pp 336

In an age when the Internet is essential for all kinds of communicationwhether from you to your loved ones, from defence networks to their airborne missiles, or from nuclear reactors to their essential machineryit is easy to simply look at the benefits accrued from being constantly online and always connected. But along with the advantages come security threats of such frightening scale that they beg the question: Is the Internet worth it

For every revolt against the government that has been organised using social networks (that is, the Internet), there is a company getting hacked and losing millions of dollars. For every friend you keep in touch with, there is a teenage boy infiltrating the topmost secrets of your countrys intelligence agencies. For every ounce of efficiency the Internet brings to businesses, there is a malicious virus threatening to destabilise essential services like stock markets, nuclear reactors, or even airline trajectory systems.

Several reports have come out criticising China for actively engaging in cyber terrorism against the West, and China, on its part, has not vehemently denied thisall it says is that the attacks were not state-sponsored, but they did originate from China. The US is so wary of the Chinese threat over the Internet that the government recently advised all its subsidiaries and agencies to stop using Chinese-made telecommunications equipment for fear of China uploading a virus through them. Some reports say 60% of US companies face Internet-related security threats on a daily basis, and things are just going to get worse. As security systems become more stringent, hackers become better.

Not all hackers are dangerous though. Anonymous and Lulzsec, two activist hacker groups, have consistently gone after those governments and companies that are seen to be infringing upon human rights. But the point must be made that regardless of how good their intentions may have been, it is nevertheless scary that they were able to so easily hack into the CBIs and Supreme Courts websites last year.

This is the world Mark Russinovich bases his novel Zero Day in. A world where cyber terrorism is as real as any other form of terrorism, and where the fear that a single-minded terrorist group could launch a cyber attack on a scale nobody is equipped to deal with, is only now beginning to take hold. Imagine, for a second, what would have happened on 9/11 if Al-Qaeda, instead of hijacking a handful of planes, had hacked into the US air traffic control system and taken over the control of all the planes in the US That may not be possible at the moment, but it is a reality we are steadily moving towards. That is the point of Russinovichs book.

Zero Day starts with several seemingly innocuous and far-flung incidentsa planes controls suddenly begin to fail somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, an oil tanker crashes into land in Japan as its navigational system just dies, hospitals all over the US have to abandon their computer databases because they have been corrupted somehow, resulting in several patients dying due to incorrect dosages of powerful medicines and, most scarily, a nuclear powerplant almost relives the Chernobyl disaster when its cooling systems fail.

Thats when our hero, Jeff Aiken, enters the picture. Hes a loner, but a genius at cyber security. He is also quite tired of governmental bureaucracy and so hands in his CIA badge to become a freelance cyber security expert. His first job is for a small company which finds that all its computers have become useless overnight due to a cyber attack. He finds theres more to these attacks and begins to investigate. The rest, as they say, is history... or fiction. It is a thriller, after all, and it lives up to that description. Its one of those books that you start reading, find that youre way past your bedtime, but keep reading anyway. But as its a thriller, Ill refrain from divulging more of the storyI would be doing Russinovich (and you, the prospective reader of the book) a great disservice if I did.

As far as the book itself goes, it must be said that what kept me going through it was more the story than the authors actual writing skill. Russinovich has quite a lot of experience working for Microsoft and is clearly a master at anything to do with the word cyber, but hes not the best author out there. So while it is undoubtedly useful that he spends time explaining complex technical terminology, the writing of it seems forced and stilted. Where Russinovich lacks in skill, however, he more than makes up in style. In Zero Day, Russinovich adopts the first rule of writing an action/suspense novel: keep the chapters short. This technique goes a long way in keeping the pace and suspense up. Also, when the major point of the action is the Internet, it is easy for the reader to lose focus of the scale of the threat the world faceseverything can be accessed from a single computer after all. Russinovich addresses this problem quite smoothly. Almost every chapter takes place in a new location, ranging from Paris to London to Washington, and this adds a much-needed sense of scalethat the whole world is encountering the same issuesto the novel.

But all that said, it must be kept in mind that this is Russinovichs first book, and as such, it is an extraordinary piece of work. There are definite bursts in the book where you would be excused if you confused what you were reading for a Dan Brown or Robert Ludlum book. These parts are few and far between, but they certainly point to the writer Russinovich can become.