There’s a riveting story to be told in “Sandworm,” but Andy Greenberg hasn’t figured out how to tell it.
Named for an especially pernicious form of malware, “Sandworm” could have been a nonfiction page-turner along the lines of Richard Preston’s “The Hot Zone,” except with computer viruses imperiling civilization instead of the Ebola virus. The threat may be even bigger in “Sandworm,” since it turned out Preston exaggerated the immediate danger of Ebola but computer viruses have already kneecapped the Pyeongchang Olympics so effectively that the Games barely managed to start on time and shut down elements of Kiev’s infrastructure, including its power grid.
One roadblock for Greenberg is helping us understand the enormity of the situation. At least in this country, we’re used to computer viruses being something that are annoying but can be handled with $150 and a trip to the Geek Squad. There’s also the problem of language, since Greenberg is forced to scatter computer terminology (BlackEnergy) and proprietary computer systems (Stuxnet) throughout his prose, and he’s already given to jargony language, anyway: “His field unit of around a hundred people was given the remit to function independently, thinking outside that massive organization’s existing patterns of thought — to look where the rest of the NSA wasn’t looking.”
What I think would have helped is if Greenberg, a writer for Wired magazine, had focused more on people, less on systems. He seems to have found the people, including a cyberdetective named Corey Stoll, mercurial Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and a sort of cyber-cowboy named Rob Lee, but Greenberg doesn’t excel at the kind of character portrait that would make us feel like we’re on the ground floor as those men (women are barely mentioned in the book) attempt to protect us from the world’s worst acts of cyberterrorism.
Where Greenberg does succeed is in scaring the heck out of his readers. Throughout the book, it’s clear there wasn’t more U.S. outrage about the attacks on Ukraine because they took place halfway around the world and because, although they were costly and disruptive, they didn’t inflict lasting damage beyond not having power or the internet for a few days.
But what Greenberg also makes clear is that Ukraine was a test case, and that, as election meddling has already shown, cyberterrorists have everything they need to hack into American government, health care and power grids. Which leaves readers with this unpleasant pair of questions: Which is worse, that terrorists disrupted life in Ukraine for no other reason than to prove they could? Or that they’re already doing the same thing here and we’re not paying attention?
“Distance is no defense,” writes Greenberg. “Every barbarian is already at every gate. And the network of entanglements in that ether, which have unified and elevated the world for the past twenty-five years, can, over a few hours on a summer day, bring it to a crashing halt.”
By: Andy Greenberg.
Publisher: Doubleday, 348 pages, $28.95.