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The Hacker Crackdown

The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier by Bruce Sterling is a book that focuses on the events that occurred on and led up to the AT&T long-distance telephone switching system crashing on January 15, 1990. Not only was this event rare and unheard of it took place in a time when few people knew what was exactly going on and how to fix the problem. There were a lot of controversies about the events that led up to this event and the events that followed because not only did it happen on Martin Luther King Day, but few knew what the situation truly entailed.

There was fear, skepticism, disbelief and worry surrounding the people that were involved and all of the issues that it incorporated. After these events took place the police began to crackdown on the law enforcement on hackers and other computer based law breakers. The story of the Hacker Crackdown is technological, sub cultural, criminal, and legal. There were many raids that took place and it became a symbolic debate between fighting serious computer crime and protecting the civil liberties of those involved.

In this book Sterling discusses three cyberspace subcultures known as the hacker underworld, the realm of the cyber cops, and the idealistic culture for the cyber civil libertarians. At the beginning of the story Sterling starts out with discussing the birth of cyberspace and how it came about. The Hacker Crackdown informs the readers of the issues surrounding computer crime and the people on all sides of those problems.

Sterling gives a brief summary of what cyberspace meant back then and how it impacted society, and he investigates the past, present and future of computer crimes. For instance he explains how the invention of the telephone led to a world that people were scared of because the telephone was something that was able to let people talk to one another without actually being in the same area. People thought that it was so strange and so different because they didn’t understand all of the information behind it.

Back then people thought of the telephone as a tool that allowed others to talk to them in a way that was so personal yet impersonal. Sterling then goes on to explain how “phone phreaks” played such an important part in relating the telephones to computer crimes and how they were so closely related back then. Another interesting detail that Sterling explained was the power of the telephone companies and the significant roles that it played in government and industry.

Ma Bell” had turned the phone operating system into a basically what is known today as a monopoly and how the “Ma Bell” system and the AT&T companies were able to fight so many legal battles. Sterling also explains how the telephone companies turned the telephone into more of a feminine occupation by employing thousands of female telephone operators to run the switchboard systems at the company. This opened the door for many job opportunities that women didn’t have before and it was also the foundation of the modern telephone system we have today.

Even though this system was productive it eventually had to get updated and become more computer organized because of the influx of calls that were coming in and the burden of not being able to have enough operators for the number of calls that were coming in, simply put they would have to come up with a better method if they wanted to stay productive. Sterling also discussed how technology has different life cycles just like everything else on earth. The first stage he called the Question Mark or the “Golden Vaporware” stage.

At this early point of development the technology is only an idea or a brainstorm process by the inventor, and most of the “Golden Vaporware” technology does not go anywhere but in the mind of the hopeful inventor. If it does go to the next stage of the process that stage is called the Rising Star or the “Goofy Prototype”. At this point in the process the technologies rarely work very well and this is the experimental part of the process. Also at this stage the inventors start to ponder the ideas of all the potential uses for the devices but most of the time they are very wrong.

The third stage of technology is the “Cash Cow” stage in which the technology finds its place in the world and becomes settled and productive. The fourth and the last stage in the technological life cycle is death. Usually at this stage another device or technology has come along and replaces the one currently used because of efficiency or societal demands. On of the other main issues that are faced in The Hacker Crackdown is the fight between computer freedom vs. computer security. One of the main goals of hackers is for society to have more freedom and more access to information.

Bruce breaks the Hacker Crackdown into four sections. Part One is called Crashing the System where he gives a brief discussion of the history of the telephone and the impact it had on society. Part Two is called The Digital Underground and in this section Sterling relates how phone phreaking and hacking have such a close background. He also discusses how the dialect, phonetics and spelling that are used in the cyber world originated a lot from the phone phreaking days. For example, that is why a lot of hackers use alternate spelling such as phile and phun.

Also in this part of the book Sterling talks about bulletin board systems and how they were so important to the hacker culture. War dialing was also a popular topic in this section. In Part three which is named Law and Order he goes into great detail to try and explain Operation Sundevil and how it was supposed to be a crackdown on people that were found doing credit card theft or telephone code abuse. Operation Sundevil was supposed to send the message to the culprits of cyberspace that the government knew all about them.

Sterling goes into great detail about the Federal Computer Investigations Committee (FCIC) and how he thought it was the most important and influential organization that dealt with the little known world of computer crime. He goes on to explain how it was so good because it was a formal bureaucracy and it was so regulated and well organized. In Part Four the last and the final chapter of the Hacker Crackdown called The Civil Libertarians, Sterling talks about how the struggle of ownership and the nature of cyberspace became a public matter and demanded attention.

In this section he discusses the idea of Computers, Freedom, and Privacy. He goes into detail about how society had developed this “electronic community” and turned into a digital nation. I think that he does a great job of explaining how communication and community are linked together and how they have a dual effect on one another. Personally, I thought that The Hacker Crackdown by Bruce Sterling was a book that was boring, repetitive and too detailed.

I think that the author did do a good job of explaining how the whole cyber space world came into existence, but what he said could have been condensed to make the book easier to understand. Honestly, for the people that wanted to get a good grasp of what actually happened did not need to know what day Alexander Bell invented the telephone, or how many legal battles AT&T had to fight in order to stay in business. I think that all this extra information just overloads the reader with needless facts and gets them confused about what the real issue that is being discussed the book.

I also noticed that sometimes Sterling would go off into immense detail about the relationships or other minor situations that were really irrelevant to the overall point of the book. To a reader that reads The Hacker Crackdown without having prior knowledge about hacking or computer devices he would be totally confused and lost after finishing this book. Some of the language is just to over exaggerated and hard to explain unless you already have some computer based knowledge and skills. I do think that he did job of capturing all sides of the issues from different points of view.

Another positive thing that Sterling did was explain how computer hackers and phone phreaks were so closely associated with one another. The conclusion of The Hacker Crackdown was very entertaining and summed up all of the points he was trying to make in the previous chapters pretty well. If I had to give this book a rating I would have to say a C-, just for effort. I think that Sterling should have been more precise and stayed on the topic at hand that way the reader would have had a better understanding of how all the events that took place effected society and still have an impact today.

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