Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Ripped From the Headlines?

It's become a classic TV crime drama teaser: "The new CSI(*): Ripped from the Headlines"

But with today's news that the "Electricity Grid in U.S. Penetrated By Spies" in the WSJ, it's now the headlines that appear to be 'ripped' from drama.

The drama in question is a (sort of) new book, called "Daemon" by Daniel Suarez. It's self-billed as a techo-thriller, and it lives up to the hype.

The book is clearly from the Clancy- / Grisham-type genre, so anything beyond a high-level description will be giving away too much of the plot. However, the main idea of the book: a distributed 'daemon' (or a computer program -- or series of programs -- that run in the 'background' where they are oblivious to the user) that has malicious intent. And because this daemon was programmed by a genius computer-game developer, the Artificial Intelligence (AI) component makes it particularly dangerous.

The author comes from an IT background, and it shows with the technological accuracy of the book. The thin lines and close connection between hackers, game-players, and IT security personnel all play a role; the result is a world of 'reality' that exists -- but is oblivious to those over the age of 40 whose memories of computer games were formed by "Pong" and "Space Invaders." (It is informative that computer games now out-earn Hollywood, although like Hollywood, games are driven by blockbusters that support the equivalent of "straight to video" bombs.)

One of Suarez' themes is the degree to which law enforcement -- from local police to the FBI to even the NSA -- is outmanned, outwitted, and outgunned by rampant distribution of technology. It does take much imagination to think of the possible ramifications for national security, and economic security.

There are some problems with the book: the body count is exceedingly high, and Mr. Suarez' descriptions of bloody endings reads (at times) like the script for "Friday the 13th Part XIX." But the stuff he knows -- the IT and its vulnerabilities -- are far more chilling than the worst sort of horror movie.

The reliance on technology in the modern world -- the vulnerabilities of that reliance to attack -- makes this a must-read for anyone interested in the future of technology. Security is only as strong as its weakest link, and as the WSJ story today shows, malicious agents are always searching for vulnerabilities.

Finally, the book itself has an interesting back story. Suarez had to essentially self-publish it in 2006 under an alias ("Leinad Zeraus"!) It apparently kicked around Silicon Valley and caught the eye of a number of high-profile individuals, including Rick Klau of Feedburner, which was shortly thereafter acquired by Google. As a result, as highlighted by a Wired Magazine article last year, the print-on-demand manuscript became an underground success.

And Penguin/Dutton eventually caught on. The book was re-released this January.

(*) - or "Cold Case" or "Law & Order" or "CSI: Miami" or...

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