This Is How They Tell Me The World Ends by Nicole Perlroth

This Is How They Tell Me The World Ends Book Cover This Is How They Tell Me The World Ends
Nicole Perlroth
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc (UK & ANZ)
February 18, 2021

From The New York Times cybersecurity reporter Nicole Perlroth, the untold story of the cyberweapons market-the most secretive, invisible, government-backed market on earth-and a terrifying first look at a new kind of global warfare.

Zero day: a software bug that allows a hacker to break into your devices and move around undetected. One of the most coveted tools in a spy's arsenal, a zero day has the power to silently spy on your iPhone, dismantle the safety controls at a chemical plant, alter an election, and shut down the electric grid (just ask Ukraine).

For decades, under cover of classification levels and non-disclosure agreements, the United States government became the world's dominant hoarder of zero days. U.S. government agents paid top dollar-first thousands, and later millions of dollars- to hackers willing to sell their lock-picking code and their silence.

Then the United States lost control of its hoard and the market.

Now those zero days are in the hands of hostile nations and mercenaries who do not care if your vote goes missing, your clean water is contaminated, or our nuclear plants melt down.

Filled with spies, hackers, arms dealers, and a few unsung heroes, written like a thriller and a reference, This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends is an astonishing feat of journalism. Based on years of reporting and hundreds of interviews, The New York Times reporter Nicole Perlroth lifts the curtain on a market in shadow, revealing the urgent threat faced by us all if we cannot bring the global cyber arms race to heel.

This Is How They Tell Me The World Ends by Nicole Perlroth

The author was recruited by the New York Times to write about cybersecurity. She knew little about the subject however that was 10 years ago. In that time she has learnt a lot and This is How They Tell Me The World Ends gives some insight into her learning journey. While her knowledge might not have been great, in the early days, the issues she was finding out about were quite primitive too. By the end of this period – 2020 – both the sophistication of attacks and the players involved had changed a lot.

The book opens with a prologue addressing what the book is about in part and about fairly current tensions in eastern Europe with Russian hackers and the impact of that. It then goes back in time to look at the topic of the original leaked documents that came out via Edward Snowdon – reviewing these was an early part of Nicole’s work on this general subject. As these documents reveal, security agencies were using zero-day access to gather information. This is a major topic for this book and is well introduced/explained here.

When reading review books I keep notes as I read. With This is How They Tell Me The World Ends the notes were extensive. I will simply offer some thoughts on one or two particular aspects of this book that I found particularly interesting. The rest I would recommend you find out about for yourself.

Early on the book Nicole tells the story of iDEFENCE. This was a software security company which early in current century was going bankrupt. A colourful entrepreneur took it on and realised that a change of direction was needed. The Internet was growing and so were flaws in software. Rather than treating hackers as an annoyance iDEFENCE took the view that they should be paid for revealing flaws in major software. The business became very successful. It allows the author to expand on the topic of hacking and the changing approaches of the big players in the software market such as Microsoft.

The book also reaches back in time to look at the early days of interception of information by electronic and quasi electronic means in the period after the 2nd World War. This leads on to an insight into early attempts to put back doors into software code. Gosler, known as the father of cyberwarfare, was able to introduce bugs in code that no one could find and worked for some time for the National Security Agency. I found this background fascinating.

There was a major change in 2009 when Google (and other major companies/institutions) found they were being hacked. The investigations into this were another part of the book I found very interesting. Ultimately it turned out to have been state sponsored rather than something done by isolated individuals. The intention was to steal commercial Intellectual Property. This changed the approach to both offence and defence. The zero-day market is under scrutiny for much of the book and it is definitely a “market”. The payments for usable exploits rises astronomically.

The book comes up to date with the 2020 USA presidential election and other recent issues. After that there is a good round up of the situation generally together with the rationale for her book. Finally there is sensible advice for all us readers.

In the end I found This is How They Tell Me The World Ends a very readable insight into a dark corner of modern life. The idea of escalating warfare is something we are quite familiar with in this, and recent past, eras. Our experience has generally been of news about visible military style action. However this unseen escalation of threat to all our lives gives some pause for thought to say the least.

The author does seem to have had access to some very useful sources. Few of them are very openly acknowledged but that is simply a facet of this subject. She also faced other difficulties researching this. Some was simply based on gender – the industry is very male dominated. However inherent secrecy and the code of revealing nothing made her work on this very challenging. Equally her research did not make her popular at times.

We all know about viruses, computers and online security don’t we… Read this and think again! It lifts the lid on the subject and peers into a murky underworld that has threats for all of us.

Highly readable – scarily fascinating

Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review