Geek Reads: Part Three of The Hacker Crackdown

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Hello, and welcome to the third installment in our weekend Geek Reads column! Last week we talked about America's war on cybercrime and discovered where terms like phreaker, hacker and phile came from. We also met the principal players in the Hacker Crackdown, including the U.S. Secret Service, the Legion of Doom and a wayward hacker known as Fry Guy. In Part 3 of Bruce Sterling's Hacker Crackdown, we finally dig into the meat of what it feels like to chase hackers through the dark alleys of cyberspace.

David : Alright so we're back for section three of The Hacker Crackdown, this time focusing mostly on the law enforcement angle of the whole Operation Sundevil deal.

Nate : ...wherein all of the intricacies of bureaucracy are laid bare. Suffice to say, no one's really sure who's in charge and they're all really miffed about it.

Alex: Seems that way. Again and again, Sterling bemoans the lack of a worldwide police force to police the worldwide web.

David: Yeah, I found the minutiae of bureaucracy in this chapter about as interesting as most law enforcement officials must, but I thought the section really picked up when he started interviewing the various law enforcement officials. More than any other group. I think they kinda needed to be humanized.

Alex: Case in point: Gail Thackeray.

David: who comes off as AWESOME.

Alex: right?!

Nate: Hehe, yes.

David: ...and who I had to Google to make sure she's doing all right.

Alex: I can't recall if we've seen an abundance of white-hat hackers up 'till now, but she definitely takes the cake.

David: it seems she eventually got her job at the attorney general's office back, was the keynote speaker at DEFCON once and stayed a sort of notable figure in the computer crimes world until at least the early to mid 2000s.

Gail Thackeray, white hat hacker extraordinaire.

Alex: I wonder if she still gets weird phone calls at all hours of the night from hackers who "just want to talk shop"? I'd also be curious to know if she's had any contact or involvement with Assange or the WikiLeaks organization...

David: Huh...I hadn't really made that connection.

Alex: I also wonder if phone scams are still her number-one concern, as they were in 1990; there's this fascinating passage about Thackeray's eyes lighting up when she starts to imagine her dream tech rig, and it really elucidated how thin the line is between hackers and cybercops

David: Yeah, that was one of my favorite parts of the chapter.

Alex: Like, the core of cybercrime is just a question of intent; and spiraling out from there, the Hacker Crackdown reminded me that all crime is just a question of intent. Narc cops know as much about stepping on coke as dealers do, they just take the stuff instead of selling it. Hackers aren't a new threat; they're the same old threats we've always faced from grifters and thieves, but with fresh tools and tricks. I think when Sterling finally admits that and fully adopts his role as a journalist and chronicler, the book hits its highest point.

David: I dunno, that goes too far for me; the anecdote about the homeless guys seems like a narrative flourish, but then I don't need the justification for humanizing the cops that this section provides.

Alex: That's a fair point, but I appreciated Sterling's rundown of the internecine squabbles over jurisdiction that routinely erupt between different branches of law enforcement. When we finished off Section 2, the Feds appeared to be a well-oiled machine working with local cops and private security forces to effortlessly silence multiple hacker enclaves at once; now we see that things aren't nearly so smooth. In fact, it's a wonder Operation Sundevil ever happened at all

Nate: Dropping in that "human" factor helps tell a lot of the underlying story. Laymen see the USSS/FBI as gun-toting American ninjas, and hackers as some shadowy organized crime syndicate. In reality, everyone is pretty much just bumbling along.

David: On an institutional level that's totally true, but I think it's fascinating getting these portraits of people who are really really good at their job, and how they're basically as isolated by that as the hackers are

Nate: Right. They're quite literally wizards, dealing with arcane mysteries. Mysteries that need to be punished or supported for the hackers and hacker cops respectively. But the lawmakers, the general public... few people actually know what it is they're dealing with.

Alex: Yeah, it reminds me of a chat I had with Billy Rios, a security researcher at Google. He's ex-military, and he takes his new job as seriously as the old one. Perversely, the people he's trying to protect have no idea what he's talking about or what his job entails; only his targets are smart and savvy enough to understand his achievements. Also, Mitch Kapor is pretty neat...

David: Yeah but we're not there yet; we learn how neat he REALLY is next week. One other thing I love, one that Sterling doesn't ever explicitly point out...

Alex: How so?

David: One thing that comes up with every new computer cop Sterling meets is that he sorta says the right tech code phrase...

Alex: and they open up!

Mitch Kapor, the dapper mug of contemporary cyber-security.
David: ...and they all start bragging like hackers. Sterling makes that connection in general, but never admits that they want recognition just as much as the hackers do. They just have a...I don't know if I want to say healthier, but certainly a more socially acceptable way of seeking it. Strangely, that makes it even harder to find...

Alex: Yeah, I can't quote text to back this up but Sterling represents the hacker crackdowners as somehow even more sympathetic than the hackers themselves; they feel like they should get some recognition for all the work they do, but hackers are the ones with all the sexy sci-fi novels and movies.

Nate: There's something far more alluring about the mysterious underground, shadowy perps in trenchcoats trading floppy disks, as opposed to geeky cops seizing modems.

Alex: I wonder if perhaps the widely-publicized "Hacker Crackdown" was a bold-faced effort to garner some public accolades for all the hard work law enforcement was devoting to cybercrime; I mean, Sterling basically admits as much in this section, right?

David: Well there is the part where he literally tells young kids to be computer cops and not hackers because it's closer to the lionized image of what cool hackers look like in the media; you're actually the underdog, you actually get all the coolest tech news and go into all the craziest systems. Best of all, the cops never bust down your door and take all your stuff.

Alex: True.

Nate: Meh. I for one still find myself rooting for the "bad guys." At the very least, the "good" bad guys. The bored teens trading phone codes to join an elite club of high tech ne'er-do-wells.

Alex: Am I the only one who's awfully inspired to start frequenting shady boards and playing around with phones?

Nate: Uh, I think you're about 15 years too late.

David: Yeah, pretty much.

Alex: So who are the new hackers?

David: I remember skirting along this stuff in like the mid 90's trying to find free video games and it already felt like a dying art.

Alex: Then what does a modern-day hacker board look like? And does phone phreaking even still exist?

Nate: A modern-day hacker board probably looks like an IRC channel.

David: Yeah, and a bunch of weird looking dudes in a diner around DEFCON or the Chaos Communications Conference.

Alex: Right, after hanging around the RSA Conference I can tell you the modern hacker is a pale teenager in a black t-shirt and black jeans. So have things changed? Maybe not so much.

Nate: It's all gotten a little subtler. It's what generally happens when the general public finds out about a thing.

David: Right! And also it's more institutionalized in a certain way.

Alex: How so?

David: I mean we're reading about the cowboy days; as Sterling points out, there was no official roster for the Legion of Doom. Now There are big hacker organizations. With conferences.

Alex: Ahh, good point.

Nate: In the 1990s, being a "geek" meant belonging to an elite fraternity of digital thieves and vandals. Today? "Oh, you're waiting in line to buy an iPad? Lawl, geek!" The barrier to entry has plummeted.

Alex: So geeks are germane to contemporary culture? Does that mean that hacking is also more mainstream, or is it still unfathomable by pop culture?

David: I mean, it is and it isn't. It's rare to meet a tech geek today who isn't in some way a hacker (sharing files, rooting your phone.)

Nate: I'm going to have to disagree.

Alex: Yeah, at some point open-source free speech freaks started coding and sharing all these simple ways to steal information. It's like the EFF and the Legion of Doom started working together. Is that the kind of tagteam we're going to see in the final chapter?

Nate: There's a big difference between jailbreaking your iPhone, and reading a post on Gizmodo (or here on GeekTech!), and following the steps.

David: Why is that different Nate? I mean, sure you're not joining the elite world of peerless hackers following a tutorial on Lifehacker, but there were tons of proto-hackers doing relatively easy stuff in the early 90's too. Either way, the barriers to entry are WAY lower and the definition of serious hacker has changed.

Nate: And that's my problem. I've attached a romantic notion to the code warrior/code monkey. Does someone who bought a shiny gadget and then read a few tutorials deserve the same "badge" as the person writing the tutorial? Hell, real geeks should be rocking Palm Treos, not iPhones/Droids.Sure, It reeks of elitism. But seriously, you should be a geek/nerd because of a vested interest in material. Build a PC. Solder something. Crank out a "Hello World!" web page in Notepad.

David: Alright I think we have to end there which isn't actually a terrible stopping point.

Nate: Yeah.

Alex: ...hey. So, I REALLY had to pee. What'd I miss?

Nate: lol. We're done.

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