Computer Underground Digest--Fri Sept 8, 1991 (Vol #3.32) Moderators: Jim Thomas and Gordo
Computer Underground Digest--Fri Sept 8, 1991 (Vol #3.32)
Moderators: Jim Thomas and Gordon Meyer (TK0JUT2@NIU.BITNET)
-> SPECIAL ISSUE: REVIEW OF _CYBERPUNK_ <-
CONTENTS, #3.32 (September 8, 1991)
File 1--CYBERPUNK Review
File 2--Review of _CYBERPUNK_
File 3--_CYBERPUNK_ Review
File 4--Newsweek review CYBERPUNK
File 5--Review of _CYBERPUNK_
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Date: 08 Sep 91 15:20:16 EDT
From: Gordon Meyer <72307.1502@COMPUSERVE.COM>
Subject: File 1--CYBERPUNK Review
((Moderators Note: REVIEWS OF: CYBERPUNK: OUTLAWS AND HACKERS ON THE
COMPUTER FRONTIER. by Katie Hafner and John Markoff. New York:
Simon and Schuster. 336 pp. $22.95 pb.
The Hafner and Markoff book has not, to our knowledge, received a bad,
or even mediocre, review, so we invited a few readers to see if the
hype is justified. It is, but don't take our word for it. Grab a copy
and read it!))
Reviewed by: Gordon R. Meyer
September 8, 1991
The promotional materials for _CYBERPUNK_ describe the book using
A fascinating and revealing account of the world of hackers
and the threat they pose in the age of computer networks.
With society completely dependent on computer networks,
Hafner and Markoff reveal how real a threat these hackers
represent, and address what we should or can do about them.
While I certainly agree that _CYBERPUNK_ is fascinating and revealing,
I found little about "the world of hackers," and even less about what
should be done about 'them'. I realize authors often have little, if
any, control over the jacket copy of their books, however as this is a
mass-market publication the jacket copy does indeed play a role in
influencing the perception and positioning of this volume in
marketplace. Also, as an observational aside, it is interesting to
note the phrase "...what we should or can do about them." A small
semantic twist that focuses attention on those who engage in the
behavior, and not the problem itself.
_CYBERPUNK_ focuses on three "infamous" computer hackers that have
risen into the public consciousness in the last few years. The
stories of Kevin Mitnick, "Pengo," and Robert Morris are presented in
a fast-paced, narrative manner. It is a very enjoyable romp through
their lives, and the events that brought them into the public eye.
The first chapter of the book concerns Mitnick, and is entitled
"Kevin: The dark-side hacker." As indicated in the authors' reference
notes, they were unable to contact Mitnick directly, therefore this
chapter appears to construct events based on third and second-party
interviews, and police/court documents. Despite this handicap, Hafner
and Markoff have created a very intriguing narrative of some of
Mitnick's activities. It is unfortunate that they were unable to talk
to Mitnick himself, as a more balanced, or rather "inside,"
perspective on the events would improve this chapter. In some ways it
is a bit like reading a historical account of a person who is long
since dead. Here's hoping that someday Mitnick will himself fill in
some of the missing parts of the story.
It was probably a wise decision to begin the book with the Mitnick
story. It certainly has the most "common man" angle to it. Mitnick,
while a skilled computerist, is closer to the average 'man on the
street' then Pengo, who was involved with the KGB, or Morris, son of a
computer scientist. Mitnick, excluding his computer related activity,
is not unlike other young men in many respects. This leads the reader
to conclude that anyone, perhaps the kid next door, could also be
involved in Mitnick-like activity. And certainly Mitnick's propensity
to taking computerized revenge against his 'enemies' will entertain
those who would daydream of, but never enact, such schemes.
This chapter does exhibit one peculiar tendency, that was thankfully
absent from the rest of the chapters. Specifically, there is somewhat
of a focus on Kevin's weight, and on the the authors, was an active
phone phreak/hacker in the early days of the computer underground.
She plays a prominent role in the first part of the Mitnick story,
then quickly fades from the scene. This was puzzling, as Hafner and
Markoff treat us to stories of her days as a prostitute, (and the time
she was thrown out of drug rehab for fellating a staff member in the
restroom), then after numerous descriptions of her "unusually large
hips and buck teeth" she quietly fades from the story, exiting into a
life of professional tournament poker. While physical descriptions
are important in helping the reader form mental images of the
characters, the focus on was a bit too sharp on the physical
attributes of the actors in Mitnick's story. Luckily this propensity
was dropped as the book continued. However, I'm still hoping for
_CYBERPUNK 2: The Return Of Thunder_ .
An interesting picture emerges from the story of the police
investigation into Mitnick. CuD readers will be familiar with the
steps taken by Secret Service agents executing warrants in the Sun
Devil investigations. In Mitnick's story we are treated to the image
of the L.A. Police following Mitnick from classroom to classroom, and
various fast-food restaurants, using a "tag team" of twelve officers,
sometimes leaping from roof top to roof top, or driving at speeds in
excess of one hundred miler per hour, all to ensure they didn't lose
sight of the evil hacker.
Mitnick's story ends with his arrest, by the FBI, in a parking garage.
While we are later given a brief postscript stating that he currently
lives in Las Vegas, I would was left wanting more regarding not only
the trial, but also his wife Bonnie Mitnick, his
co-hacker-turned-snitch Lenny, and the various other people connected
with Mitnick's story. Admittedly, I found the section on Mitnick to
be the most interesting aspect of _CYBERPUNK_, and it left me wanting
more. Others may be more than satisfied with what is already offered.
However, I did not have the same feeling regarding the story of Hans
Heinrich, "Pengo and Project Equalizer." I felt the story was
well-covered, with adequate details regarding Pengo's association with
"Hagbard Celine," all the way up to the ensuing trial, and aftermath.
Hafner and Markoff present essentially the same story as Cliff Stoll's
_The Cuckoo's Egg_, but from the other side of the phone, so to speak.
It also brings some interesting questions to light regarding the
interaction of the FBI, CIA, NSA, West German officials, and Laszlo,
the Philadelphian who ultimately requested Stoll's bogus SDINet
information. Fascinating stuff, and after reading this section I
immediately wanted to re-read Stoll's book, just to form a better
picture of the situation.
For anyone wanting to understand what all the fuss was over the
incident described in _The Cuckoo's Egg_, but not wanting to read
Stoll's account, _CYBERPUNK_ offers a cogent, and equally compelling
summary of the events. Anyone who has read Stoll's book, should be
equally interested in this section as well.
The final focus of _CYBERPUNK_ is on Robert T. Morris, author of the
so-called "Internet Worm." Here the authors' offer some insight into
the Morris family, and the actions taken by Robert and his associates
as the Worm was working its way throughout the Internet. As an
accounting of the trial, and documentation of the questions and issues
the Justice Department needed to confront in attending to this case,
it is more than worthwhile reading. There has been much written on
the actions of the Worm, and the aftermath of its release. Hafner and
Markoff give us a peek behind the scenes and illustrate that many of
the questions and issues raised by the actions of Morris, are as of
In conclusion, _CYBERPUNK_ is very enjoyable and quite entertaining.
I highly recommend it to CuD readers, it is worth the minimal time
required to read it. I found myself disappointed that it offered no
insights into the computer underground per se, and in fact I would
argue that it is not a book about the computer underground, or as the
dust jacket puts it "the computer frontier" at all. It is an
interesting account of three talented individuals, who each happen to
have used computers as their tools of choice. Is _CYBERPUNK_ a
definitive peek into the world of computer hackers? It is not. Does
it provide insight and raise questions for the student of the computer
underground? Absolutely. Read it.
From: joeholms@DORSAI.COM(Joseph Holmes)
Subject: File 2--Review of _CYBERPUNK_
Date: Mon, 24 Jun 91 15:38:40 PDT
"Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier," is
journalism's second mainstream book on hackers, although since 1984
when Steven Levy wrote his "Hackers," the definition has certainly
changed. Cyberpunk is the story of three groups of "outlaw" hackers --
Kevin Mitnick, whom the authors call the "darkside" hacker, and his
friends in California, Pengo and the other West German hackers who
were pursued by Cliff Stoll in "The Cuckoo's Egg," and Robert Morris,
the author of the worm that took down the Internet in 1988. The
authors, Katie Hafner, technology and computer reporter for "Business
Week," and John Markoff, computer industry reporter for "The New York
Times," live up to both the best and the worst of journalism.
The good news is that they've assembled a ton of new details,
including the days leading up to Robert Morris's release of his worm
into the Internet, and lots of information about Pengo, Hagbard
Celine, and the other West German hackers visiting their Soviet
connection. For that reason alone, the book is sure to sell well. On
the other hand, there are passages in the book that leave the reader
more than a little skeptical about the reporters' accuracy.
Pittsburgh's Monroeville mall, for example, did not serve as the "set
for the cult film 'Night of the Living Dead'"--that was "Dawn of the
Dead." While that's hardly an important detail, such inattention does
nothing to inspire confidence.
And unfortunately, very little of the detail is put to any interesting
use, since the book offers almost no analysis of the facts. There's no
suggestion offered as to why Pengo, Mitnick, or Robert Morris did what
they did (the authors could take a lesson from "The Falcon and the
Snowman"--the book, that is, not the movie). Instead, Hafner and
Markoff have apparently drawn their own conclusions about the Mitnick,
Pengo, and Morris, and they seem to have written Cyberpunk to convince
us that Kevin Mitnick is a shallow, vindictive, and dangerous genius,
while Robert Morris is an innocent, misunderstood genius, more
scapegoat than outlaw. While those conclusions might easily be true,
we're never trusted to discover that from the facts alone.
As they tell about the dangerous pranks and hacks by Mitnick, for
example, they seem always ready to pass along every scary anecdote
about his power over everything from computers to the phone company to
security guards. No matter what the source (and it's usually
impossible to tell what their sources were), they apparently believe
every story they're told, even when the stories are obviously the
bragging of the participants. On the other hand, when they discuss
Morris, he gets the benefit of every possible doubt as they trace him
from his loving upbringing through his trial and sentence. They
mention, for example, Robert Morris's habit of ranging throughout
various networks and computers using decyphered or stolen passwords,
and they note, "Robert made a practice of breaking into only the
computers of people he knew wouldn't mind." Incredibly, this is stated
without the slightest bit of irony or skepticism. I myself have long
believe that Morris was something of a scapegoat, but what I'd like to
learn from a book like Cyberpunk are the facts to help me make up my
mind about Morris, not apologies and half-baked conclusions.
Cyberpunk is ostensibly about the people involved, not the science, so
computer and science readers will be disappointed to find that it
avoids explaining how phreaking and hacking works. I sorely miss Cliff
Stoll's ability to clearly explain to nonprogrammers the technology
behind all these exploits. Stoll, for example, easily explained how a
hacker with a dictionary and a little patience could figure out a slew
of encrypted passwords using simple logic rather than brute force.
Because Cyberpunk doesn't bother to delve into such details, it misses
the opportunity to involve the reader more deeply.
The writing style will win no awards (Hugh Kenner's review of the book
in the July Byte calls it "sledgehammer prose"). But of course,
Cyberpunks will nevertheless be gobbled up by all the
computer-literates -- the users and the hackers -- as well as a public
ready to be scared by news of the new evil breed of young computer
masterminds who are about to take over the world. Or at least the
world's credit ratings.
Date: Wed, 10 Jul 1991 19:37:22 -0400
From: Brendan Kehoe
Subject: File 3--_CYBERPUNK_ Review
A capsule & review by Brendan Kehoe.
"Cyberpunk", by Katie Hafner and John Markoff, provides the reader
with a peek inside the very real world of the computer "hacker".
Labeled members of a "counterculture", these people, generally in
their teens and early twenties, have added a sharp tint to the
normally bland design of the computing world.
Divided into three contrasting sections, "Cyberpunk" provides an
insight into what drives a hacker, from the extreme to the accidental.
(To allay any complaints, I'll use hacker in its common vernacular; as
Steven Bellovin said a couple of years ago, "the battle is over, and
the purists have lost." For our purposes, "hacker" will imply
Kevin Mitnick, a overweight and markedly shy youth, satisfied many of
the stereotypes that have been developed over the years regarding
hackers. He ran the full gamut of "evil deeds," from altering credit
ratings to turning off telephones at will. Remarkably adept at social
engineering, Mitnick could talk himself into (or out of) nearly any
situation. In one escapade, Mitnick and his compatriots ("Roscoe",
"Susan", and a third phreak) managed to enter, raid, and leave a
PacBell COSMOS center (where much of PacBell's main computing takes
place for things like billing), leaving with a wealth of door-lock
codes and, more importantly, manuals. All with the PacBell guard's
unwitting permission. (They were later turned in by Susan, who is
described as a very vindictive and dangerous young woman.)
All adventure aside, Kevin had a serious problem. He was, by clinical
definition, addicted to hacking of any sort. It became impossible for
him to stop. Even after incidents with USC, GTE, Pierce College, and
the Santa Cruz Operation (makers of SCO Unix), Mitnick kept following
the endless road of systems to be conquered.
He disappeared for a year (purportedly to Israel, but in reality only
a few miles outside of San Francisco), to return after his warrant for
the SCO incidents had been dropped. He immediately looked up his
friend Lenny DiCiccio, who had spent a number of his teenage years
following Kevin as a trainee might follow a mentor. Lenny found
himself increasingly unhappy, as the fevered hacker's hold upon him
returned. Mitnick insisted that he be allowed to come to Lenny's
office (a small software company) after hours to hack. Under normal
circumstances, such constant imposition would lead to some sort of
objection---but Lenny couldn't help himself. Kevin appealed to the
criminal in him that normally lay dormant. With Kevin, he could do
things he had previously only schemed about.
After a few months, Kevin and Lenny happened upon a virtual gold mine:
Digital's Star development cluster in Nashua, New Hampshire, where
their most proprietary systems development takes place. Since DEC's
VMS operating system was their favorite, they couldn't have been
happier. Or more greedy. "Kevin had always approached his illicit
computing as a serious project [ ... his ] project for 1988 was
downloading Digital's VMS source code."
In the course of following Mitnick's tale, Hafner and Markoff do an
excellent job of drawing the reader into Kevin's never-ending search
for the "perfect hack." The eventual outcome of their Digital
exploits, and the end of their (illegal) hacking careers (to slip out
of the vernacular for just a moment), is nothing short of amazing.
The authors' depiction is both disturbing as it is riveting.
By now, many people are acquainted with the story of the "Wily
Hacker", the electronic intruder that skyrocketed Cliff Stoll, an
astronomer by degree who found himself a system manager, into
wide-spread notoriety as an authority on computer security. Stoll's
paper in the Communications of the ACM, "Stalking the Wily Hacker",
graduated to become the book "The Cuckoo's Egg", which was on the best
seller lists for weeks, and also took the form of a Nova documentary.
This all, however, was presented from Stoll's point of view. Hafner
and Markoff now afford people the opportunity to see the "other side"
of the whole affair---from the world of Markus Hess, Pengo, and the
German hacking underground.
Hans Huebner went by the name "Pengo" in his youth, and is the main
character in the second part of "Cyberpunk". Pengo grew from a
Commodore 64 and BASIC programming to a network "cowboy" in a matter
of months. Video games (including the one that provided his namesake)
were his first passion---he could spend hours upon hours completely
engrossed in the tiny world that exposed itself before him. Then a
friend introduced him to using a modem, and the vast web of computers
only a phone call or network connection away. He found in hacking an
excitement and adrenaline rush normal video games could only attempt
Pengo's world was strewn with drugs---one of his fellow hackers, Karl
Koch (nicknamed "Hagbard Celine", for the protagonist in the
Illuminatus! trilogy), regularly abused hashish and LSD. All members
of their small group (with the exception of Markus Hess) spent a
substantial amount of time in a chemical haze.
Peter Carl and Dirk-Otto Brzezinski (aka "Dob") also played a major
role in Germany's hacking scene. It was ultimately Carl who
introduced a new angle to their computer crimes---the potential for
making money by selling their knowledge to the Soviets. Starved for
technology, the pre-Glastnost Russian republic absorbed the booming
computer industry with relish at every opportunity. Members of the
KGB worked with agents around the world, smuggling electronics and
high-tech computers into the Soviet Union. The hackers, particularly
Carl and Dob, wanted in.
Carl approached one KGB agent with an offer to provide the fruits of
their hacking ventures in exchange for one million German marks.
After small rewards, it became clear that they would never reach their
lofty goal---they received at best a few thousand marks for a copy of
the source code to Berkeley Unix. Often, they sold what was otherwise
public domain software, much to the Soviets' chagrin.
Eventually, internal struggles drew the hackers apart---Pengo, for not
being able to "produce" often enough for Carl; Hagbard, falling
further and further into an incoherent world only he knew; Dob, who
went to prison for weeks because Pengo forgot to pay a bill; and Hess,
who became increasingly wary about how much he should share with the
others, until he rarely heard from them.
Pengo, growing weary of the entire KGB ordeal, let the secret slip
during a routine interview with the local media. The German press was
habitually interested in the darkly intriguing German hackers. When
the reporters realized the magnitude of the story that Pengo mentioned
so casually, they felt society draw its breath at the idea that
espionage, considered inevitable by many, had actually been
demonstrated in the computer underground.
"Cyberpunk" spends a good deal of time describing the aftermath of the
exposure of the KGB dealings. The arduous ordeal of deciding who was
responsible for what crime(s), trying to educate a computer illiterate
court in the intricacies of computer networks and use in general, and
the conflicting stories of each of the hackers would make a normal
writer's head spin. Hafner and Markoff demonstrate an ability to
organize the entire matter into a sensible, and interesting,
counterplay. At the closing of the final section, we learn of a truly
unexpected casualty of the entire affair.
Finally, probably the most widely known case of computer malfeasance,
the story of Robert Tappan Morris (aka "RTM") and his Internet worm of
1988 is described. The section begins in a room at Berkeley called
the "fishbowl", where Phil Lapsley notices a strange process running
on his system. It soon becomes clear that many of the computers on
the campus display similar characteristics to Phil's. They later
discover that it's not confined to Berkeley---it's happening all over
Morris, a Cornell graduate student in computer science, had written a
program that would "reproduce" itself from computer to computer, in a
relatively benign way (inasmuch as it didn't destroy any information).
He made some careless errors, however, which made the program go out
of control. He released it on Wednesday afternoon, November 2, 1988.
Rather than replicate itself only after a long period of time on the
same system, it did so at a rate so fast that the computer soon became
unusable. When Morris returned from dinner only an hour later, it had
already ground hundreds of systems to a halt.
It traveled the network by exploiting holes in certain Unix systems'
software. Teams at Berkeley and MIT spent all night studying a copy
of his program, trying to return it to its original source form.
Slowly "patches" for the holes were worked together, and sent out to
system administrators and posted to the Usenet news network.
Unfortunately, many systems had completely disconnected themselves
from the Internet as soon as the worm hit, so they didn't get the
fixes until days later.
Robert Morris, RTM's father and a computer scientist for the National
Security Agency, stood by his son while he went to trial and faced
reprimand for the results of his actions. Hafner and Markoff portray
the young Morris as an extremely bright student who probably only now
realizes the full effect of his relatively small programming errors.
What happened behind the scenes of the whole incident completes the
story given by the news media and various technical and electronic
journals. (As a note, also included is the story of how the senior
Morris came to work for the NSA.)
"Cyberpunk" brings to the forefront an issue facing computer
professionals and enthusiasts alike---the legal systems of the world
are sorely lacking in appropriate investigation and treatment of cases
like the three detailed in this book. Oftentimes the punishments and
results of captures are far too harsh--other times, they're lenient
enough to be laughable. "Do young people who illegally enter
computers really represent such a menace? We hope that from reading
the following stories readers will learn that the answer isn't a
simple one." Throughout the book, the authors never let the reader
forget that they're describing real people and real consequences, not
In all, I found "Cyberpunk" to be an excellent read (I devoured it in
about 4 days, coupled with work and other things) that anyone remotely
connected with computers, or intrigued by the computer underground in
general, will find truly fascinating.
As an aside, I think the first section on Kevin Mitnick would make an
absolutely fantastic docu-drama.
Date: 04 Aug 91 19:54:15 EDT
From: Gordon Meyer <72307.1502@COMPUSERVE.COM>
Subject: File 4--Newsweek review CYBERPUNK
"Inside the Head of the Hacker"
Reviewed by John Schwartz, NEWSWEEK July 29,
((Moderators' note: the following is a excerpt/adaptation from
Schwartz's review. Interested readers should review the complete text
of the article.))
... [ John ] Markoff's story [ on Morris' Internet worm ] was the
first of a journalistic flood. But for all the ink spilled over the
Cornell graduate student's case, little insight into his personality
emerged. Computer-security experts would later try to paint Morris as
a menacing rebel; Abu Nidal at the keyboard. Some journalists probed
the irony of a computer-security expert's son-turned-security-threat,
ham-handedly coming up with a dark psychological portrait, an Oedipus
If you ever wanted a clearer picture of the nerd who brought down the
network, a new book, "Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer
Frontier," delivers him, and the entire Morris family, up in rich
"Cyberpunk" throws a spotlight on two other computer fanatics whose
acts took them over the line of law. One is Kevin Mitnick, an
obsessive system cracker... The other, West German Hans Hu\"bner,
attempted to sell information from his Internet trespasses to the
KGB... Like the Morris story, each is told in a full context that,
while not justifying criminal acts, goes a long way toward explaining
Though readers who know a modem from a Model T have a head start, the
authors offer lucid explanations of just enough technology to make the
stories work, even for the computer illiterate. If the prose
sometimes seems a bit workmanlike, there's plenty of juicy detail to
keep the narrative moving. Hafner and Markoff, like the dedicated,
intense cyberpunks they illuminate, appear to have stopped at nothing
to hack their way into the cyberpunk subculture.
Date: Tue, 2 Sep 91 13:31:51 CDT
Subject: File 5--Review of _CYBERPUNK_
(Reviewed by Jim Thomas)
I'm always suspicious of books highly praised by competent reviewers
and _Cyberpunk_ (CP) was no exception. Layfolk and professionals
alike have found it provocative and accurate, and the closest I've seen
to criticism is Walter Mosely's review in the NYT Book Review (Aug 11,
p. 15). He calls it "overlong, a bit melodramatic and repetitive,"
and adds "If you do't know much about the power of computers, what you
learn here may frighten you." Mosely's cavil is far overshadowed by
his praise. Discussions with others who had read the volume range from
favorable to hysterically enthusiastic. Even though I find John Markoff
to be a consistently competent and incisive journalist, I refused to
believe that any book can be *that* good. I was wrong. _Cyberpunk_
*is* that good. The stories are uneven, some potentially helpful
detail is omitted, and the book is outrageously mistitled. Yet, it
remains a captivating volume that, once begun, cannot be put down.
Hafner and Markoff are story tellers, but their stories are not simply
about hackers or the computer underground. The tales of each
character are used as a prism through which to view human fraility,
excess, and amoralism. Unlike some prosecutorial accounts that have been
egocentric and judgmental, Hafner and Markoff let their data do the
talking, and we no longer see "good guys" and "bad guys," but just an
array of different personalities caught up in their own agendas for
their own interests.
Most readers find the title objectionable, and I am tentatively
inclined to agree. My dissatisfaction with "_Cyberpunk_" (as a title)
is mainly that cyberculture simply isn't what the book is about. In
the BBS culture, cyberpunk reflects a particular style of activity and
communication, and the trilogy doesn't mirror the culture of such BBSs
as Demon Roach Underground, Cyberpunk 'zine, the heavy-metal
influenced youth boards, or the yippie-like anarchists' disregard of
social convention. To do that, a strong contextualizing chapter would
have helped, coupled with conceptual links illustrating how each of
the subjects served as an exemplar for one thread in the cyberpunk
mosaic. To consider Hafner and Markoff's' subjects as "cyberpunkers"
expands the meaning of the term such that any member of the computer
underground could be included within the ambit of techno-outlaw. My
concern isn't, as it is for some, that the title distorts the meaning
of the term cyberpunk, an issue over which it is difficult to generate
much emotion. By contrast, the definition of "hacker" is important
because of its use by law enforcement to stigmatize and weave
guild-laden associative rhetorical threads from a rather strained
syllogism: "Hackers are evil; you are a hacker; ergo..." This was the
line used in some of the search affidavits and indictments, and the
terms "cyberpunk" and "hacker" were used interchangeably by some
prosecutors. As a consequence, the stakes over precise definitions of
the term "hacker" are much higher than for "cyberpunk."
_Cyberpunk_ isn't even about "hackers and outlaws." This objection
isn't a quibble about the meaning of words, but about matching a title
to its contents, and the tendency of marketeers to sacrifice "art" to
enterprise. The fact that the characters are hackers is incidental to
the primary subject and sub-themes, which include (in my reading) the
antinomy between new forms of social meanings (eg, definitions of
crime, ethics), new ways to express one's individuality (computer
intrusion), and the ways that "newness" transforms basic existential
dilemmas into (in this case) self-destructive behaviors.
The narratives are about real people, and Hafner and Markoff convey
all characters as complex, a refreshing change from the cartoon
characters portrayed by law enforcement and most media. The unifying
thread binding the characters is an amoral fascination for computer
technology and the ways in which the intrusion caused by this
fascination disrupt not only computer systems but the lives of those
The first story of the trilogy, "Kevin: The Dark-Side Hacker,"
describes the exploits *as well as the lives* of Kevin Mitnick and his
associates. Mitnick gained national notoriety through his ability to
break into almost any system by combining technological prowess with
social engineering (or "conning"), and for his equal inability to
restrain himself from hacking, which led one California judge to
revoke his bail because the "pathology" made Mitnick a major "social
The "dark-side" subtitle may cause some to wince in recognition that
it seems to sensationalize the deeds of Mitnick & Co. But as the
narrative evolves, an alternative reading would interpret "dark-side"
as refering instead to the psyches, not the behavior, of the drama's
front-stage characters. Roscoe, a talented but errant phreak, is
depicted as a self-centered and manipulative twit lusted after by
Susan Thunder, an equally manipulative lanky and unstable run-away who
moved through a succession of jobs ranging from prostitution to
computer security with equal facility. Lenny DiCicco, a compulsive
button pusher and gadget meddler, seemed to lack a strong persona or
will of his own and was vulnerable to Mitnick's manipulation. He
ultimately freed himself by betraying Mitnick to the FBI. Finally,
Mitnick himself appears center-stage as a talented cracker and phreak
whose obsession with telephone and computer technology provided the
existence of this fat, troubled youth with some meaning.
If one reads _Cyberpunk_ only for the hacking exploits, the pathos of
these characters will be lost. In most ways that count, they share a
fatal flaw: None is able to control their passions or to redirect them
toward less intrusive actions. Kevin, Lenny, and Susan constantly
display mutual vindictiveness, jealousy, suspicion, insecurity,
betrayal, and an amazing inability to step back from situations that
bring each to the brink of existential disaster. These people are
neither evil nor dangerous. They are pathetic social nuisances unable
to utilize their own talents or move beyond the cycle of errant
behavior that characterizes rebels without a cause. The dark side of
their behavior lies not in the consequences of their "crimes," but in
their failure to act in their own or society's interests.
_Cyberpunk's_ remaining two narratives are competent, informative, and
detailed, but they lack the rich texture of the first. The second
tale relates the escapades of Pengo, Peter Carl, Markus Hess, Hagbard,
and others, whose most notorious exploit was selling relatively
worthless information and software to the Russians (although the real
names of Hagbard and Pengo are given in the book, they are generally
referred to by their handles). The characters range from reasonably
normal students leading somewhat normal lives to the totally
whacked-out Hagbard, who believed he was fighting an international
conspiracy. The group is loosely-knit, with dramatically different
individual motivations, skills, ideologies, and intents. The group
named its self-appointed mission "Project Equalizer" because it was
believed that a balance of political power--and thus world
peace--could be obtained by technological parity between the
super-powers. However, despite the name, none of the members appeared
to have any coherent political sophistication or interests, and one
can readily believe that it was the "thrill of game" that provided the
primary motivation. Peter Carl kept the bulk of the modest sum
provided by the Russians, sharing relatively little with his friends.
Although Carl is depicted as the most mercenary of the lot, and both
he and Hagbard needed funds to support their drug habit, the others
seemed unaffected by the lure of money.
These are not "evil hackers," and unlike the Mitnick saga, these
people, with the exception of Hagbard, are neither pathetic nor
particularly unusual. Their passions are controlled if misdirected,
and most seem to lead reasonably normal lives. Their flaw is not
felonious predations, but gross lack of perspective and judgement.
They were engaged in behaviors they did not fully understand and of
which they were unable to see the consequences.
The final tale describes the unleashing of the Internet worm by Robert
Morris. The most matter-of-fact journalistic account of the trilogy,
Hafner and Markoff depict a bright college student whose primary crime
was grossly screwing up an intrusive software program. Son of
brilliant computer scientist Bob Morris, the junior Morris learned
computers and programming as a child and was fascinated by computer
bugs that allowed system entry. The Internet worm was the result of
an attempt to see how many computers he could reach with a software
program, and was intended to be a harmless network security probe. Due
to a minor programming error with major consequences, the worm, once
inside another computer, wildly replicated itself, slowing down and
filling up systems, and ultimately causing many to crash, some to be
brought back up only to crash again.
The worm itself did not destroy programs or data, but did disrupt
system use. Morris intended no harm, but the havoc his program created
grabbed media attention and raised the visibility of hackers. The
Morris incident flamed the calls for setting punitive examples to
these social menaces. Hafner and Markoff cite one national computer
expert who went so far as to incharitably call for an industry-wide
boycott of any computer company that would hire Morris. But, Morris
is not depicted as a nasty, dangerous character in need of punishment.
On the contrary: He comes across as a frightened young man who
realizes too late the consequences of his act and is terribly
concerned about it.
Of the primary characters in _Cyberpunk_, only Mitnick served prison
time (one year in a federal prison and mandatory psychiatric
counselling). DiCicco pled guilty to one felony count and received a
sentence of 5 years probation, 750 hours of community service, and a
$12,000 restitution order to Digital. All charges were dropped
against Pengo, and his attorney negotiated with DEC to avoid a civil
suit. Hagbard apparently committed suicide by self-immolation in a
German forest. Peter Carl received two years and a 3,000 mark fine,
Hess was was sentenced to 20 months with a 10,000 mark fine, but the
prison sentences were changed to probation. For the worm, Morris
received three years probation, a $10,000 fine, and 400 hours of
Perhaps, on reconsidering, _Cyberpunk_ is aptly named after all. John
Brunner's 1975 _Shockwave Rider_, generally considered the original
model for the genre, depicted a world in which technological
information was used to control the masses, and Nickie Haflinger, the
protagonist/anti-hero, was both outlaw and savior. He used his talents
cynically and manipulatively until dramatic events added wisdom and
maturity to his world vision. The cyberpunk characters possess
knowledge, but not wisdom. Little distinguishes Pengo, Mitnick or
Susan Thunder from Case, William Gibson's cybernaut in _Neuromancer_.
They all share social marginality and the amoral cynicism often found
among bright, alienated youth short on political consciousness and
vision, but long on passion for techno-thrills. Like the world Bruce
Stirling portrays in _Islands in the Net_, contemporary society is
increasingly dominated by those with the ability to control knowledge,
global boundaries are dissolving, and computer technology is a form of
However, in the cyberpunk genre, the protagonists attain salvation by
turning techno-power against itself through illegal incursions into
its realm. They challenge the authority of those who control, unleash
the potentially emancipating power of chaos, and ultimately save the
world for a presumably brighter tomorrow. In their own way, each of
Hafner's and Markoff's characters has done the same. Their actions,
for better or ill, have raised the question of the relationship of
information control to social welfare, revealed the gap between law
and a changing society, and, along with numerous others who live on
the limits of the cybercrest, through their actions have brought to
center stage the problems that computer technology poses for
individual rights of speech, privacy, and property.
In Eco's _The Name of the Rose_, Brother William stumbles into a
monastery mystery during an era when entrenched conventional ideas are
challenged by a renaissance in knowledge. Confronted with the the
danger of being labelled a heretic, he painstakingly assembles,
through interviews and documents, images of a diverse community from
which he can ultimately make sense of the strange events surrounding
him. Hafner and Markoff do the same: Their matter-of-fact,
non-judgmental portrayal may seem heretical to some law-and-order
advocates, but they neither laud nor condemn, but display each
character in a naturalistic mirror in which we vicariously re-live the
events. We see Mitnick's transgressions, Lenny's betrayal, and Morris's
terror just as we experience the pettiness of FBI agent Joe O'Brien's
mean-spirited insensitivity toward two witnesses and prosecutor Mark
Rasch's continued mispronunciation of Morris's name as Robert "Tap-in"
(instead of "Tappan") Morris.
The image of hackers permeating _Cyberpunk_ is not one of dangerous
predators who should be locked up. They are confused, not-yet-mature,
and insensitive to the issues in which they were involved. There
actions were wrong and the consequences unacceptable. But after
reading Hafner and Markoff, one doubts the value of punishment and
wonders if, perhaps, part of the problem might not lie not so much in
individual transgressors, but rather with a social system that has
sacrificed casuistry on the alter of technology and materialism.
_Cyberpunk_ brought to mind the words of the cynical preacher in
Steinbeck's _Grapes of Wrath_:
"There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There' just stuff
people do. It's all part of the nice, but that's as far as any
man got a right to say."
End of Computer Underground Digest #3.32
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank