Sterling, a cyberpunk author, is at his best when he is telling stories. He adopts a revelatory style and writes in a tone of wonder and bemusement as events take one unexpected turn after another. Particularly intriguing is his telling of the Craig Neidorf/Knight Lightning story. Neidorf was prosecuted for electronically distributing an edited version of a document copied without permission from a BellSouth computer. Sterling documents the history of the document as it was sent across the Internet many times, its publication in the Phrack newsletter, the arrest of Neidorf, the charges against him and the eventual collapse of the trial. As the story unfolds, one realises that truth is indeed stranger than even Sterling's bleak cyberpunk
There are many other stories in the book: the story of Steve Jackson, whose legitimate games company was raided under sealed warrant, and all of his computers seized; the story of The Legion of Doom, a group of hackers who assemble in cyberspace to brag about breaking into computers and sharing stolen access codes and credit card numbers; the story of the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation by Mitch Kapor, author of Lotus 1-2-3, and John Perry Barlow, sometime lyricist for The Grateful Dead; and closing the book, the story of the Computers, Privacy and Freedom conference of 1992, in which hackers, law enforcement, and civil libertarian groups met to talk about these issues with unprecedented openness. Sterling attempts to make these stories take second place to the culture, or more correctly cultures, of cyberspace. He chooses to structure his book in four main parts, each dealing with one of these subcultures. While hacker stories have been told before, this examination of cultures has been neglected, and Sterling is to be praised for attempting it.
However, Sterling does not seem too comfortable in his self-appointed role. Try as he might, the events keep overtaking the people, and the book ends up feeling somewhat confused - but then the whole subject is rife with confusion: cultural, technical and ethical.
Although Sterling fails to give it the emphasis it deserves, the main theme of this book is power. In the first part of the book Crashing the System, Sterling describes the power of the telephone companies. From the fledgling technology of the telephone, through the rise of AT&T, and the significant role that it played in government and industry, to the break up of the Baby Bells. The picture that Sterling paints of the contemporary telcos is that of a power base that is under threat, and which is struggling to preserve its grip on the power that is being threatened by the more widespread availability of technology, not to mention the breaking of the economic monopoly. Lest this sounds like dull reading – there's not a sentence in this book that can be described as dull – I should mention that Sterling brings this history to life by taking us in detail through the duties of a switchboard operator, and observing that in the early days of the telephone teenage boys often played this role until they were found to be 'hacking', when they were ejected from the system. There are intriguing parallels between the time just after the introduction of the telephone - which Sterling identifies as the creation of cyberspace - and the contemporary era, which represents the settling of that 'place'.
The second section of the book, The Digital Underground, documents the hacker subculture. Sterling steers a journalistic middle course: on the one hand stressing the illegality of hacking and debunking the myth of the talented genius, while at the same time pointing out that the typical hacker is not a hardened
criminal but a teenage boy. Sterling explains the feeling of technical power for a hacker when he uses a computer to break into a voice mail pbx, or to break into a password protected system, to gain access to hitherto inaccessible regions of cyberspace. Sterling makes much of the isolation and cultural powerlessness of hackers: they are typically teenage boys who grew up in the Reagan era and have come to believe that all institutions are corrupt, and who see
their computer and modem as weapons against those institutions, even if it is only to steal insignificant documents, or do no more than irritate those institutions. He also describes the material available on 'underground' bbss, illustrating the anarchistic stances adopted by these elite children of elite families, and debunks the myth that there are 'gangs' of hackers working in concerted effort to bring about the downfall of the technocracy as we know it, but asserts that theirs is typically a solitary 'game'. This isolation leads to their need to brag of their exploits to other hackers, in order to build a reputation, and often thereby to their swift arrest. Isolation also accounts for the fact that almost every hacker arrested cooperated fully and informed on his contacts in cyberspace.
There is no hacker community, Sterling implies, and no honour among hackers.
In the third section, Law and Order, Sterling describes the world of the law enforcement officers. If one thing comes through from this picture it is that the law enforcement agencies in this country were/are ill-prepared to investigate and prosecute computer crime. Sterling remarks that he, a not particularly computer-literate author, has more computer power in his home than the typical computer law enforcement officer (of 1990). Sterling describes the modus operandi of a typical hacker bust, the seizure of everything that looks like it might be relevant including cds (that might store data and be disguised as music cds), and Sony Walkmen (because they are electronics, I guess). In his article Crime and Puzzlement, John Perry Barlow writes In fairness, one can imagine the government's problem. This is all pretty magical stuff to them. If I were trying to terminate the operations of a witch coven, I'd probably seize everything in sight. How would I tell the ordinary household brooms from the getaway vehicles? While Sterling's description of the problems facing the under-funded, under-equipped and under-skilled government agencies is sympathetic, he does not seek to justify the excesses in the events of 1990. He carefully makes and maintains the distinction between hackers from legitimate computer users, and describes how members of both of these groups were equally punished by The Hacker Crackdown.
Finally, in The Civil Libertarians Sterling describes the response of the Silicon Valley and Austin computer culture to the strange events of the hacker crackdown, which culminated in the formation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In this very upbeat section, Sterling describes how the computer elite used their technological power to network and organize, to seize the public relations advantage, to file suit in defense of Steve Jackson and Craig Niedorf and to set themselves up to defend civil liberties in cyberspace. In the view of the civil libertarians, the hacker crackdown was the first skirmish in the battle for control of cyberspace. The Electronic Frontier is a new 'place' that is currently being populated and the rules that will govern this place are up for grabs. The civil libertarians are concerned to guarantee important rights for the citizenry of cyberspace, in particular: freedom of expression, freedom of association and privacy: in effect a constitution for cyberspace.
The Hacker Crackdown taught me much about the events of the early 90s and it is entertaining and provoking by turns. I recommend it highly, for its discussion of the contemporary struggle for technological power, illustrated by unbelievable, but true, stories of law and disorder on the electronic frontier.