Mark Bowden's "The Enemy Within"

Behind the scenes of one of the best stories of 2010.
1 stories

Mark Bowden established his reputation as a master of action-packed narrative nonfiction with Black Hawk Down, his harrowing reconstruction of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. The book became an international bestseller and a hit movie (reputedly one of Saddam Hussein's favorites). But Bowden is not simply a journalist of action; he has spent the bulk of his career—six years at The Baltimore News-American and over twenty at The Philadelphia Inquirer—as a member of the small club of workaday reporters who bend the newspaper form nearly to the breaking point, fashioning prose that reads like good fiction, with the bonus that his stories are true.

During a dinner with his editors at The Atlantic Monthly in the fall of 2009, Bowden took out a short article about a computer worm he had clipped from that day’s paper. “Here is a story from the front page of the Wall Street Journal. It is obviously important, but I don’t understand a word of it,” he said.

In June 2010, The Atlantic published The Enemy Within, Bowden’s 9,000-word article about the Conficker computer worm that had infected millions of computers across the world (including in the U.K.’s Defense Ministry) by exploiting a flaw in Microsoft’s Windows operating system. Bowden spun the dry technology article into a gripping detective story in which the world’s cleverest hackers are pitted against a group of international computer sleuths dubbed the “Conficker Cabal.”

Other than a short stint writing about science for the Inquirer (he was chosen simply because he subscribed to Scientific American magazine), Bowden knew nothing about the technology. “Ignorance is a wonderful starting point for stories like these. But in order to ask appropriately ignorant questions it helps to be truly ignorant,” he says.

Bowden began his reporting by interviewing John Crain, ICANN’s senior director for security, stability and resiliency. Bowden interrupted Crain over and over, with the most basic questions imaginable: “What is a router?” “What does a server do?” “What does ICANN do?” Over the course of his career, Bowden had learned that people generally liked talking about their work, and don’t mind being asked to explain it. “I knew that if I could get someone to explain the story of the Conficker computer work to someone as ignorant as I am, I could write a story that my readers would understand, and have fun reading,” he says.

After each interview Bowden would transcribe his recordings and do further research on the information the experts had shared with him. Additionally, he asked several of the experts to read drafts of the story to help him deepen his understanding, and avoid making egregious errors. While there are occasions in which this kind of disclosure isn’t feasible, Bowden does so when possible. “I feel it is more honorable to show people your work, especially if you are going to be critical of them. I made it clear that I wasn’t giving anyone veto power, and that the ultimate decision about what to write is mine. I’ve found that most people are willing to accept that,” he says.

While reporting the story he was startled to learn how unprepared the U.S. government was to defend against internet attacks like Conficker. The electric grid, and even the Internet itself, could be disabled by a well-designed virus. The recent success of Stuxnet (which disabled part of Iran’s nuclear program July 2010) and other worms has made the U.S. government more aware of the risks of cyber terror. The Obama administration has put a lot of resources into increasing cyber security, and Obama himself cited the Conficker attacks as part of his motivation. For all the government’s efforts, nobody has been arrested in the case, although the suspicion is that the worm’s creators are in Ukraine.

By Robert S. Boynton, Director of Literary Reportage Concentration at New York University, and author of The New New Journalism. Mark Bowden's The Enemy Within is one of Boynton's selections for The New New Journalism, circa 2011.

From the Web

The Enemy Within

When the Conficker computer “worm” was unleashed on the world in November 2008, cyber-security experts didn’t know what to make of it. It infiltrated millions of computers around the globe. It constantly checks in with its unknown creators. It uses an encryption code so sophisticated that only a very few people could have deployed it. For the first time ever, the cyber-security elites of the world have joined forces in a high-tech game of cops and robbers, trying to find Conficker’s creators and defeat them. The cops are failing. And now the worm lies there, waiting …

Jun 2010