Friday, December 30, 2011

Hacking and Writing

I am a very parallel reader, meaning I read many books in parallel, bouncing from one tome to another from evening to evening. It is only the rare thriller or fantasy saga that can set me to plow through a whole volume in one go without taking a break and mixing it up. So while my close reading of Sacred Hunger continues, yesterday I took a break and finished off Kingpin by Kevin Poulsen, editor of Subtitled, "How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground," it's really a biography of Max Butler aka Max Vision, a hacker who is currently serving his third jail sentence, which is apparently the longest sentence ever handed down for hacking charges.

Poulsen is an extremely fluid writer. His pacing is excellent, he keeps his dramatic flourishes minimal and tasteful, and he successfully explains the gist of the technological flaws the hackers exploit. He puts the reader right in the middle of the action, leaving himself and his sourcing out until the epilogue and the endnotes. I found it a little odd that Poulsen didn't prominently acknowledge his own past as a convicted hacker given the extent to which his story revolves around the psychology, rationalizations and attempted reforms of hackers. I borrowed the book from a friend who highly recommended it and had no idea about Poulsen's past. The only reason I knew, without Googling, is that several years ago I factchecked an article Poulsen wrote for Business 2.0 and our editor, Todd Lappin (whom Poulsen thanks in the acknowledgements of Kingpin ) told me why Poulsen was a pretty authoritative source on hacking. I can respect Poulsen's desire to keep his own story from obscuring his subject's, but I would have been interested in a less detached and impersonal version of his particular perspective on the choices Max made over the years.

Another former Business 2.0 colleague, G. Pascal Zachary, reviewed Kingpin for the San Francisco Chronicle and noted, "The ensuing cat-and-mouse game is worthy of a thriller, though the stakes are small." The stakes are small--despite the book's subtitle Max himself is only held responsible for $86 million in losses and received only a small fraction of that himself; the main concern is which of the characters will go to jail and for how long. But because the 'characters' are living, breathing people whose path I very well may have crossed here in the Bay Area, I found their foibles and tribulations much more engaging than the more dramatic gestures of fictional suspense. This also made it a much more engaging way to learn about the dangers of credit card fraud and unsecured personal and small business computing.

The book was even more entertaining because I recently watched the hilarious 1995 throwback Hackers, starring Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller. Beware the absurdities of computer hacking as visualized by a mid 90s art director who seems to have gotten his hand in the computer animation cookie jar, or a script that seems more like an 11-year old's fantasy than a hardboiled thriller. That said, it's a fun flick and kind of adorably innocent. You almost certainly do not want to try and watch it after reading Poulsen's more realistic descriptors.

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