Book Review: Fatal System Error by Joseph Menn

When Mikko Hyponnen (of F-Secure fame) posted about this book on Twitter, I immediately pre-ordered the book.  I got it two days later.  (I was only one-day advanced on the pre-order, it seems.)  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect exactly, only I knew it had to do with cyber-security, so I was intrigued.

What I got was a fascinating book with two main stories told from the perspectives of the good guys.  The first was a story of how a young dyslexic man struggled against the odds to become one of the best people around at defeating Distributed-Denial-of-Service (DDOS) attacks.  His story, which spans at least two continents and his unwitting participation with some of the internet’s shadier characters, is a fascinating one.  That story comprises part one of the book, and ties into part two quite neatly.  Part two is the story of a British detective and his exploits in foreign countries (particularly Russia) in his efforts to find and eventually catch several of the same cyber-criminals from part one.  While it has the tempo of a fictional “cyber-thriller”, this book is non-fiction and is based on the very thorough work of Joseph Menn, a reporter for the Financial Times (previously of the LA Times).  The overall theme is that of the war that is taking place using the world’s computers and networks as a battleground.  Despite the chronicled successes outlined in these two stories, it’s a war that’s very quickly being lost.

I’ve been working in the cyber-security industry for a while now, so I’m not entirely unfamiliar with some of the more sinister aspects of what happens on the internet.  However, I think for the “layman” or someone who doesn’t work with technology and/or cyber-security, this book will be a really good look into a world that you don’t ordinarily see, replete with real heroes, real villains, and real consequences to real people.  Most people will understand some of the consequences from the flood of spam that they’re used to getting; for the unlucky few, identity theft will bring the stories even closer to home.  Even if you’re fortunate enough to have never experienced any of those consequences yourself, you may have recently heard of the attacks on Google and several other companies.  The war taking place in cyberspace is all too real, and while I would hope that most people never have to be involved, the opposite is likely the case.  It is escalating, and there need to be more stories like the ones in this book if we ever hope to win.