Books I Love: The Hacker Crackdown

Now that we've figured out which one is Pink, allow me to welcome you to the machine…

In the late 80s, I kind of knew a bunch of people who were involved in what we called The Computer Underground. They weren't my friends, and I couldn't even tell you what their handles were (well, I could, but I won't) but I learned a ton of stuff about technology and other mysterious subjects by dialing into BBSes and reading the textfiles they left behind.

By 1990, I was spending less and less time online, while I continued to struggle with my existential acting crisis. I read books about acting, and all of them left me cold. I read books about filmmaking, and I just didn't care about them.

Then, in 1992, I saw this book called The Hacker Crackdown on the front table at a book shop. I was intrigued, and I started reading. After standing at the table for a long time and getting deeper into the book than someone who is standing at a table near the front of a bookshop should reasonably get, I bought the damn thing. I finished it within a day, and before a week had elapsed I had read The Cuckoo's Egg and Cyberpunk, the only other books on the subject that I could get my hands on at the time.

On one level, The Hacker Crackdown is about how the US Department of Justice launched a nationwide operation to bring down a bunch of hackers in something called Operation Sundevil, but it's also about a subculture and its people who remain misunderstood to this day. Most importantly, introduced me to a world where information and intellect were incredibly valuable, and it inspired me to learn all that I could about the online world I'd eventually call my home. On the way from there to here, I met a lot of the people who are in the book, and formed some friendships that lasted for years.

Cory Doctorow said that The Hacker Crackdown changed his life and it "inspired me politically, artistically and socially." He's not the only one. I can draw a very short and very straight line between reading this book and learning how to navigate the World Wide Web, which is what we called the Internet before you damn kids today were born.

In 1994, Bruce Sterling released the book online, and in 2007, Cory Doctorow recorded the entire book as a series of podcasts. If you want to understand how we got here, I'd say The Hacker Crackdown is required reading.

next time: the prince of wales

28 thoughts on “Books I Love: The Hacker Crackdown”

  1. You just made my day! I read The Hacker Crackdown, Cyberpunk, and The Cuckoo’s Egg over and over so many times in high school I thought they’d fall apart!
    Thanks for taking me back! Despite everything I can do now on the Net, I still sometimes miss the simplicity of war-dialling my favorite BBS, waiting to get an open line…

  2. I read all the books mentioned and then some. Still have them on my thinning bookshelf for nostalgia’s sake. Have a few more (and some video game sociology/culture items on my Amazon wish list). But I thought I’d mention another you’d enjoy. “Masters of Deception”. It’s about MOD and the war between them and LOD (Legion of Doom). An amazing story of the pioneers of the wires. To think that such things were even possible at some point.
    Also, a nod to musician POE for mentioning MOD in her song “Hello”. Give it another listen if you never noticed all the references to tech in the song.

  3. Heh. I’ve read THC and Cuckoo’s Egg. I’ll have to track down Cyberpunk.
    The sysadm at college lent me a copy of the Cuckoo’s Egg. He had the right attitude towards the students. He knew a certain percentage of us were going to keep banging away at the VAXen just to see what we could and couldn’t do. His typical approach was to challenge us. He’d add some new security or a new system and then take the first student to break it out for a steak dinner.
    The other sysadm who was afraid and angry at the students for exploring the technology was well hated. Hey Bob, your system password was “Vikings” for deity’s sake.

  4. I started listening to Cory’s version earlier this year but drifted away from it despite it being utterly fascinating. This has spurred me on to get my ass in gear and just buy a copy, thanks :)

  5. The sysadmin / owner of the ISP hosting my primary POP account was one of the three arrested in Operation Sundevil (Bruce Esquibel aka “Dr. Ripco”). I’m no longer living in Chicago, so I don’t have them as my actual ISP anymore, but I’ll keep an email account with him for as long as he stays in business.

  6. I read that book ages ago, and while clearing out the shed for a yard sale my son found it. He took that, some Douglas Adams books, and several star wars books to is room… never to make it to the “under $100 table.” He also found my autographed picture of Majel Barrett-Roddenberry and asked “Who the heck is that lady!” Kids…. 😉

  7. Ever try:
    That was the first time I’d ever actually read a book on the subject. But at the time I’d already grown up inside that culture as my dad had a fairly well-known handle back in the day. And about the only time I got to spend with my dad was in the computer room. Otherwise he was at work or sleeping. So while other kids my age were playing tee-ball, my dad was showing me how to crack programs in a hex editor.

  8. I would like to recommend Underground as well. I actually got my hands on a physical copy a few years ago, it’s an amazing book.

  9. When the guys at Ripco started offering free shell accounts the BBS became Ripco II and the ISP became Ripco. Ripco II had some warez but not much from what I remember. It was all shareware and the board wasn’t accessed much. The last time I looked it was available with a telnet link. I got my shell and ten minutes of free web access from the ISP side and the internet was mine! I spent hours reading newsgroups and bouncing around with Archie and Veronica. On a Commodore 64. That was good stuff.

  10. Bruce Bethke, author of Cyberpunk, ran a fascinating blog about the sci-fi writing industry called TheRantingRoom. It’s still up. If you want to read the inside scoop on publishing in sci-fi, get over there while you can.
    He’s streamlined and moved everything over to TheFridayChallenge where he does a weekly sci-fi writing challenge with winners and feedback. It’s ramping up to be a generous and informative writing group.
    His website is currently down. I don’t know what the status is on that.

  11. I picked up the Cuckoo’s Egg on a Friday night in 1990. I read it in one sitting. I was in and out of school at the time, bouncing back in forth between studying journalism and computer science.
    Cliff Stoll included his email addresses in the back of the book and I had a discussion with him via CompuServe about the book, astronomy, computer science and a bunch of other stuff. Cliff is a really neat guy and I appreciated the fact that he was willing to answer a lot of questions from a college kid he had never met.
    For me the fascinating aspect of the book was the concept of all these systems networked together and the ability to store and access these vast amounts of information. I was using bulletin board systems in 1990 (Anchorage Alaska had a very active BBS community in the late 80’s and early 90’s) but had not yet discovered the internet.
    It really was this book that helped seal my career choice and I have been working as a professional developer since 1993. I still have that very copy of the book sitting on my shelf. It’s a keeper – and every once in a while I pull it down and read it again.

  12. If you like that book of non-fiction, then you’d probably like this book of fiction.
    Written by Rick Dakan, Geek Mafia is one of the best psuedo-cyber mysteries I’ve read in years. He’s released at least one sequel. Also, these books USED to be available for download from his website for free. It seems he gave up that practice, but they were all licensed under Creative Commons for a while.
    Geek Mafia (teh beestest)
    Geek Mafia: Mile Zero

  13. “next time: the prince of wales”
    You’re going to review that book they turned into a movie with Barbara Streisand and the Hulk’s father? Weird.

  14. *ahem*
    We were calling it The Internet before Sir Tim came along with his fancy “world wide webs” (Geeky extra fact: Did you know he considered calling it “The Information Mine” (T.I.M) at one stage, and even “Mine of Information” (Moi) but decided they were a little pretentious)
    The World Wide Web runs utilising the Internet infrastructure.

  15. I’ve read ’em all. I think I finished The Cuckoo’s Egg in one sitting, it was so fascinating. And one of my all-time faves is The Watchman: The Twisted Life and Crimes of Serial Hacker Kevin Poulsen. It’s amazing what he pulled off by social engineering and the sheer passion to intimately know how system work. Especially the Bell system. I think he writes for Wired on occasion now that he’s out of prison.
    I also loved Masters of Doom, the back stories of the two Johns (Carmack and Romero) and how ID Software and Doom came to be, changing the gaming world forever.

  16. When I started using it at 2400 baud, we called it BBSing. Then, when I was using it at 14.4, we called it The World Wide Web, The Information Superhighway, and several other things that were not “The Internet.”
    I don’t know when we started calling it The Internet, but it wasn’t until the mid-90s, I think.

  17. I guess this comes down to the difference between what it was and what people commonly refer to it as. Like how Hacker is more often incorrectly used to describe someone malicious instead of the correct term Cracker. Strange how these things occur. Everyone calls it what they like and you find just a small minority screaming “NOooooooooo!!!!”
    *geek mode on*
    The term Internet was actually coined back in 1974, RFC 675, and continued to expand in use in the ’80s as the different research networks connected together :)
    *geek mode off*
    I only came across this when I got nabbed to do a talk for a genealogy “computer user” group that my father was in about the history of the internet. They figured my CCNA qualification automatically meant I knew all about the internet!

  18. Yeah, I hear ya. It still drives me crazy when they say “Hacker” when what they mean is “Cracker” or “Code Kid” or “Script Kiddie” or “Asshole.”
    But, if there’s one thing I’ve figured out in my life, it’s that They™ have a vested interest in confirming a predetermined narrative, facts be damned. Also, They™ are lazy, overworked, or both.

  19. Never read a lot of hacker “books” phrack and 2600 a side, because they are zines. I did however do the whole BBS thing, and yes it was called BBSing. Except we used an IBM 3151 Terminal and a modem, a set of alligator clips and some good running shoes. LOL, long live Datapac.
    *jumps into a dumpster and frolics*

  20. The book that opened up the door for you also served to open the minds of people you have influenced with your presence on the Internet…You have more than passed it on.

  21. WHY ARE YOU SIFTING THROUGH MY BACKPACK?! I’m psyched that you happened to post this while I’m in the middle of reading this fine book!
    I visited the public library here a few weeks ago (for the first time in, like, forever) and, remembering when I tried to read this book on my iPod, got frustrated, and eventually gave up on it, decided to give it another try. It’s a great book, and I’m only halfway through it. It connects a lot of knowledge that I’ve learned from the tubes over the years (such as the Steve Jackson Games incident), and, being an eighteen-year-old computer enthusiast, this book reads like a cross between an epic history book (more of a History Channel documentary in book form, really) and a novel. It’s great so far, and I’ve had a blast learning about how things were in the “good ol’ days” of BBSes, and so forth.
    While I was at the library, I wanted to check out “The Art of Deception,” but it already out, so I settled for “The Art of Intrusion.” Another great book, if you haven’t given it a look!

  22. Okay, I apologize for all of these addenda, but I wanted to point out how much of a savior you are. I’m building this tower out of balsa wood for a Physics class project, and it’s due…today. It’s 4:17 here, and I’m still building the damned thing. The good Lord was kind enough to give me the latest Totally Rad Show, Diggnation, and (most importantly) Penny Arcade/PvP/WW D&D Podcast to listen to…and I finished them all, and was very sad because I was likely to fall asleep before this acursed tower was complete. Now, however, I can listen to the remainder of this book that I’ve been reading, and by Cory Doctorow, no less! Thank you, good sir!

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