Review of “Zero Day” by Mark Russinovich

Mark Russinovich is a Technical Fellow at Microsoft who decided to raise awareness of the dangers of internet sabotage by making it central to a thriller. As he said in an interview:

After the virus waves of 2000-2003, it became obvious to me that a relatively minor effort by a few computer-experts could cause destruction that would easily dwarf that of 9/11. It’s the perfect weapon for terrorist because it has the potential for much wider damage than a physical attack, is virtually anonymous, and is based on technology that’s readily accessible.”

Zero Day begins with series of catastrophic events related to computer crashes: an airplane’s loss of control over the Atlantic, scrambling of prescription orders on hospital computers, a nuclear power plant going offline, etc. All of them are characterized not just by an unseen computer virus, but by the loss of the computer’s operating system altogether.

Jeff Aiken, a security expert formerly with the CIA, is hired by a law firm that was similarly struck to see if Jeff can recover the data before the firm loses all its clients. Jeff had left the CIA after his warnings about 9/11 were ignored; his fiancé was among those killed in the World Trade Center. Now, he sees an attack with the potential to cause even more damage because of the global interconnectivity of and dependence on the internet. He is aided in his investigation by the beautiful Daryl Haugen, who works in the Division of Counter Cyberterrorism in the Department of Homeland Security.

Together they race against time to discover the source of the attack, and to prevent the virus from doing incalculable damage.

Discussion: This book is meant to grab your attention by suspense while the author hammers in his agenda, which is to make the world more aware of, and therefore to take more precautions against, the vulnerability of computer systems to terrorist sabotage. After all, as a character in the book muses:

The military of the West depended more and more on computers and the connectivity of the Internet, as did Western civilian governments. In the United States nearly every government function was tied to the Internet. Social Security and the Fed, to name just two, could be accessed from the Internet. The list was almost endless…”

It’s a worthwhile concern but I think his execution suffers a bit.

He is obviously way more comfortable and talented in writing about the tech issues than about interpersonal relationships. Some of the character descriptions and dialogue are banal or even laughable.

On the other hand, the tech writing is quite good even if there might be a little too much of it for a suspense novel. We learn not only about the term “zero day” (“software bugs for which no fix exists, that aren’t widely known, and that malware authors use to spread their viruses”), but also about worms, virus construction, and basic computer operation. But I would have omitted the sequences of code (for how many readers would this be meaningful?) and long passages of communications in hacker rooms that are typed in difficult-to-read shorthand.

Evaluation: I’m willing to overlook a lot of the shortcomings because of the seriousness of the subject, and because I believe in the importance of the problems outlined by the author. But I sure wish the execution had been better. A writer with skills in both technical issues and storytelling (Cory Doctorow comes to mind) would be preferable. Nevertheless, I applaud the author’s efforts to raise awareness of this issue.

Rating: 2.5/5

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication Year: 2011

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14 Responses

  1. You kind of have to applaud the guy for going for it, you know? Alot of people have the technical knowledge but don’t do anything with it. Computer terrorism is pretty scary stuff. Is there a human alive today that haven’t been affected in one way or another by them?

  2. This would not be one that I would enjoy, but I have to say it is a clever premise with a great cover.

  3. This sounds really scary, actually. I also wish the execution was a bit better because I think if it was, it would be a book that my husband would enjoy. Thanks for the honest and thorough review.

  4. I won’t even tell my husband about this because he’s a confirmed Luddite already. I know this is a frightening issue but not using computer systems isn’t really a practical solution. Too bad this writer didn’t have the writing skills to pull the story off.

  5. I work in a technical field and yesterday, in a two hour meeting (ugh!) we discussed how smartphones are so vulnerable these days because they don’t have anti-virus (usually) and are often left unproctected (GPS/locator turned on, passwords not encrypted, etc.)

    It would be so easy to really f-up things.

  6. It definitely sounds like a good plot for a thriller. Too bad it didn’t work with this author. Although I’d like to read a similar story, I know it will make me paranoid about our total dependence on the internet. I hope some bright people, like this author, are working on possible solutions.

  7. Well, darn, I’m disappointed to see this wasn’t any better than it is.

  8. I have always liked this kind of thriller plot, in both books and movies. This one sounds interesting for the tech stuff.

  9. Although you weren’t as thrilled with it I am going to let my husband and sons know about this one. They are all either in the computer biz or just true techies. I know they would love the premise and the writing (even the technical parts) may float their boat a little more. Anyway, we will at least see.

    Thanks for the fair and careful review.

    Enjoy a bit more spring…what wacky weather here. Spring, summer, winter and now back to spring again for a minute. Wait, it will be summer on Friday!! Gotta love the desert.

  10. But part of me thinks that perhaps he should NOT raise awareness about this! Terrorists read 2.5star books too!

  11. Every now and then I run into a book which I do not really like, but the topic is so important that it’s not exactly a “fail” either. A Child Called “It” was like that for me; I didn’t really enjoy the writing, but the topic was heartbreaking and important.

  12. great! just what I need, something else to worry about!

  13. I understand the concern for security and our almost insane desire to believe that everything we do is secure on a computer. Too bad the execution wasn’t there.

  14. Well, if not for your 2.5 rating I amy have overlooked the rest, Important and scary topic that sounds a little heavy handed although with a little more writing under his belt maybe he can get better with the next one.

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