Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 131 / JULY 1991 / PAGE 131

Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers On the Computer Frontier. (book reviews)
by Robert Bixby

It all started with the phone phreaks. These outlaws made monkeys out of the biggest monopoly on earth--the telephone company--and tweaked the noses of the electronic lawmen determined to track them down. And because nobody really loves AT & T, there may've been a certain and unt of tacit support for their activities among the common folk, who were happy to see someone finally getting back at the big, impersonal bureaucracies of the world. William Gibson knew how to tap into that latent desire for revenge when he wrote Neuromancer, as did John Brunner when he wrote Shock Wave Rider, Bruce Sterling when he wrote Islands in the Net--just as George Orwell knew it when he created the tragic hero of 1984.

It was an easy step for these miscreants to take from telephone hacking to computer hacking, and since this was primarily a province of juveniles and the juvenile at heart, it was inevitable that some frat-house pranks might occur. The problem is that dropping a cherry bomb down a toilet in the campus administration building frosts only a few well-deserving cookies. Dropping an electronic bomb on an international network of million-dollar computer installations represents a hazard to business, the militaryy, and millions--perhaps billions--of lives.

The stories related by the husband and wife team of Katie Hafner and John Markoff are legend: Kevin Mitnick, the telephone hacker rumored to have ruined the credit rating of a judge who ruled against him; Karl Koch, the paranoid computer spy who identified himself as Hagbard Celine, after the hero of a conspiracy novel, and ended up horribly killing himself by self-immolation; and rtm, the brilliant Cornell student and son of a computer security expert whose innocent worm crashed computers from coast to coast and landed him in a legal quagmire.

Many of the people in this book take on other identities online--Pengo, named after a penguin in a video-game; Obelix, after a French cartoon character; Captain Crunch; the Phantom; the Cheshire Catalyst; and so on. But what makes the book so successful is that it enters these identities. And, as you can imagine, the human stories behind a man who would identify himself as a penguin or a woman who would call herself Susan Thunder are rife with attendant ironies.

By using stolen credit card numbers and network user identifications, the hackers were able to take advantage of system operators' gullibility, huge corporations' fear of bad publicity, and a kind of telephone con game called human engineering to break down seemingly impregnable security, and in the process they earned the admiration and respect of fellow hackers and impressionable young people throughtout the world.

The authors take you inside the minds and value systems of hackers, showing how human curiosity, and longing to be on the inside and privy to secret power, can become highly destructive impulses. The writing takes on a tense journalistic style that reveals the incredible depth of the research performed. Without becoming bogged down in technical details, it explains in layman's terms how the nets operate and how they were breached. Each of the hackers' stories is told in an insightful biography. Many of the characters in Cyberpunk seem driven, like addicts, unable to control their appetites for power, more to be pitied than censured.

But there is no ambiguity about, the carnage they have left behind. The authors look with a jaundiced eye upon the kind of society that results when fears of terrorism and vandalism overwhelm the desire to communicate and remain open to human interaction.

In all, Cyberpunk is a valid look at recent history, as important in its own way as any of the industry insiders' books about the corporate role in the computerization of America, and far more broad ranging and complete than CliffStoll's book The Cuckoo's Egg (to say nothing of the fact that Cyberpunk is far better written). Stoll appears now and then as a minor character in Cyberpunk. It was very enlightening to see this character (whom I felt I had come to know so well through his book) from the outside. Cyberpunk is a masterwork of reportage, and it belongs on your bookshelf.