The Hacker Crackdown, Bruce Sterling

Bantam Spectra, 1992, 316 pages, C$7.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-56370-X

(Available online at http://www.lysator.liu.se/etexts/hacker/)

Bruce Sterling has acquired, in the science-fiction community, an enviable reputation as one of the smartest, most visionary representative of the genre. Indeed, in the turbulent nineties, Sterling has shown himself capable of adapting to the new wave of technology that almost made Science-Fiction obsolete. A string of excellent books (Heavy Weather, Globalhead, Holy Fire, Distraction, A Good Old-fashioned Future) have cemented his reputation as one of the current masters of the genre.

Few SF observers would have been as bold as to claim such an honor for Sterling at the end of the eighties. Sure, Schismatrix was a boffo space-opera, and Islands on the Net showed promise, but apart from a few other short stories in Crystal Express, the rest of Sterling’s fiction output was disappointing, to say the least. Who remembers Involution Ocean? Or The Artificial Kid? If anything, Sterling was showing more promise as a competent critic (Cheap Truth) and anthologist (Mirrorshades) than a fiction author.

In the early nineties, however, something happened. In 1990, a string of events rocked the computer underground. A friend of Sterling, Steve Jackson, saw federal agents confiscate a good part of his small gaming company’s assets under the pretext that he was writing a manual for computer pirates. Sterling didn’t simply get mad; he seeked the truth behind the event. The Hacker Crackdown is a journalistic account of the 1990 skirmishes between the telephone companies, the hackers, the police and the civil libertarians.

The book is divided in four parts. In the first, Sterling begins by explaining the roots of cyberspace, going back as far as the first telephone networks. In one of the best passages of the book, he explains how the telephone system went from a simple cable strung between Alexander Graham Bell’s phone and Watson’s receiver to the current unimaginably complex packet-switching network. Then he traces the effects of a simple bug which shut-down AT&T’s telephone network in January 1990.

He then takes us deeper underground, describing the subculture of the computer hackers that existed in 1990. He shows how paranoia, caused by the AT&T shutdown, percolated in a “need for action” that led police officers to raid private citizen’s house and to grab their computers—and in many cases, much more than their computers.

In the book’s third quarter, he goes from one side to the other and ends up talking about the police forces and how they’re trying to update their mandate in the information age. He discusses how most computer security outfits were severely under-funded in the early nineties. Sterling takes us at a computer-security conference, and does some hacking of his own.

Finally, he ends up explaining the most enduring legacy of the 1990 events; the electronic rights interest group that have been formed. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is described, along with a variety of speculations on the future of “law and disorder on the electronic frontier”.

How important were the 1990 events? Well, as Sterling puts it, any policeman can go to a group of scruffy-looking hoodlums hanging in front of a store and ask them to leave, or else. Few groups of hoodlums would have the presence of mind to go phone up a lawyer to protest police repression of their constitutional right of free assembly. That’s what happened in 1990; for ill-defined reasons, government kicked over the electronic anthill, and that precipitated the formation of electronic rights interest groups, whose influence continues to grow in today’s information age.

And you couldn’t find a better writer for the job than Bruce Sterling. His writing is clear, incisive and often funny. Even though he is clearly outraged at the police abuse, he gives fair consideration to everyone’s viewpoint, and the result is a superb book that illuminates computer security like few other books before. Strongly recommended. It is still, and will remain relevant. Parallels with current cases involving entertainment cartels versus internet startups (Napster, MP3.com, 2600.com…) under the guise of “piracy” when really it’s all about “consumer control” are chilling, to say the best.  Except that this time, civil-rights groups aren’t facing an opponent bound by the constitution… and they can’t compete with their dollar-fuelled lobbyists.

But don’t take my word for it; go check out the electronic version at http://www.lysator.liu.se/etexts/hacker/

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