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 and timely 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.
Published by Thomas Dunne Books, 2011