Takedown, Tsutomu Shimomura with John Markoff

Hyperion, 1996, 509 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7868-8913-6

As today’s world is becoming increasingly dependant on electronic networks for communications, business and entertainment, the potential for abusing these systems is also expanding. On one side, clever young anarchists with time to lose and the “Information should be free!” slogan. One on the other, computer security specialist and corporations with information to protect.

It’s not only a technical issue. Without effort, it also touches ethical, philosophical and personal issues. In an age where the Internet is now offering more free information than was available to every human that ever lived before, property issues are become more important than ever.

Unfortunately, Takedown only briefly touches on these important questions. This might not necessarily be a criticism of the work, given that the book is about one particular instance of computer crime.

On Christmas Day 1995, somebody broke into Tsutomu Shimomura’s system, copied files and went away. Unfortunately for the cracker, Shimomura happened to be an expert in computer security. Takedown details Shimomura’s hunt for the culprit, a hunt that eventually took him to a Raleigh suburb for the apprehension of the suspect.

There have been a few books on the subject of computer security, and Takedown is an average entry. It’s an enjoyable book: simply written, not too technically obscure, satisfyingly resolved. Despite the cover blurbs, it’s not as good as a detective novel, but it holds its own. The process of detection, identification and localisation of the computer cracker is gradually revealed, and the chase even becomes exciting when Shimomura has to go on the terrain to investigate. (You can tell that this isn’t a movie by the fact that the cracker and Shimomura don’t meet until after the cracker’s apprehension.)

But somehow, Takedown isn’t as fascinating as it should have been. Worse, a better similar book exists. The Cuckoo’s Egg, by Clifford Stoll, told the tale of an eclectic astronomer who managed to catch teen crackers by luring them in a network of false information. Not only are the stakes higher in The Cuckoo’s Egg (military info versus cellular phone software), but Stoll is -I’m sorry to say- a far more interesting individual. Both books work in a considerable amount of detail of the two men’s personal lives, but whereas Stoll is a genuine eccentric, Shimomura comes out of it as a brilliant hacker desperately trying to pass himself as “normal”. His interests in skiing, hiking and other pursuits besides computers seem tacked-on to humanise the characters, not as essential parts of the narrative. His romantic interest also seems -with apologies to these two- pretty weak.

In the end, we’re left with an interesting tale of modern detection, spiced up by a deliciously portentous “physical” dimension when the narrative moves to Raleigh. Critics voiced on the Internet have complained that the Intruder’s side of the story has been given short thrift, but that’s an insignificant assertion given the source of the story. Far more damaging is the rather obnoxious narrator and the sometimes-ridiculous attempts at humanizing the character. Whatever your opinions about cracking, Takedown is unlikely to convince anyone. Readers, let them be laymen, hackers or crackers, will get out of the book what they bring into it.

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