Crypt News reads so many bad books, reports and news pieces on hacking and the computing underground that it's a real pleasure to find a writer who brings genuine perception to the subject. Suelette Dreyfus is such a writer, and "Underground," published by the Australian imprint, Mandarin, is such a book.
The hacker stereotypes perpetrated by the mainstream media include descriptions which barely even fit any class of real homo sapiens Crypt News has met. The constant regurgitation of idiot slogans -- "Information wants to be free," "Hackers are just people who want to find out how things work" -- insults the intelligence. After all, have you ever met anyone who wouldn't want their access to information to be free or who didn't admit to some curiosity about how the world works? No -- of course not. Dreyfus' "Underground" is utterly devoid of this manner of patronizing garbage and the reader is the better for it.
"Underground" is, however, quite a tale of human frailty. It's strength comes not from the feats of hacking it portrays -- and there are plenty of them -- but in the emotional and physical cost to the players. It's painful to read about people like Anthrax, an Australian 17-year old trapped in a dysfunctional family. Anthrax's father is abusive and racist, so the son -- paradoxically -- winds up being a little to much like him for comfort, delighting in victimizing complete strangers with mean jokes and absorbing the anti-Semitic tracts of Lewis Farrakhan. For no discernible reason, the hacker repetitively baits an old man living in the United States with harassing telephone calls. Anthrax spends months of his time engaged in completely pointless, obsessed hacking of a sensitive U.S. military system. Eventually, of course, Anthrax becomes entangled in the Australian courts and his life collapses.
Equally harrowing is the story of Electron whose hacking pales in comparison to his duel with mental illness. Crypt News challenges the readers of "Underground" not to squirm at the image of Electron, his face distorted into a fright mask of rolling eyes and open mouth due to tardive dyskinesia, a side-effect of being put on anti-schizophrenic medication.
Dreyfus expends a great deal of effort exploring what happens when obsession becomes the only driving force behind her subjects' hacking. In some instances, "Underground's" characters degenerate into mental illness, others try to find solace in drugs. This is not a book in which the hackers declaim at any great length upon contorted philosophies in which the hacker positions himself as someone whose function is a betterment to society, a lubricant of information flow, or a noble scourge of bureaucrats and tyrants. Mostly, they hack because they're good at it, it affords a measure of recognition and respect -- and it develops a grip upon them which goes beyond anything definable by words.
Since this is the case, "Underground" won't be popular with the goon squad contingent of the police corp and computer security industry. Dreyfus' subjects aren't the kind that come neatly packaged in the "throw-'em-in-jail-for-a-few-years-while-awaiting-trial" phenomenon that's associated with America's Kevin Mitnick-types. However, the state of these hackers -- sometimes destitute, unemployable or in therapy -- at the end of their travails is seemingly quite sufficient punishment.
Some things, however, never change. Apparently, much of Australia's mainstream media is as dreadful at covering this type of story as America's. Throughout "Underground," Dreyfus includes clippings from Australian newspapers featuring fabrications and exaggeration that bare almost no relationship to reality. Indeed, in one prosecution conducted within the United Kingdom, the tabloid press whipped the populace into a blood frenzy by suggesting a hacker under trial could have affected the outcome of the Gulf War in his trips through U.S. computers.
Those inclined to seek the unvarnished truth will find "Underground" an excellent read. Before each chapter, Dreyfus presents a snippet of lyric chosen from the music of Midnight Oil. It's an elegant touch, but I'll suggest a lyric from another Australian band, a bit more obscure, to describe the spirit of "Underground." From Radio Birdman's second album: "Burned my eye, burned my mind, I couldn't believe it . . . "
["Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier" by Suelette Dreyfus with research by Julian Assange, Mandarin, 475 pp.]This review appears in issue #44 of Crypt News.