Author: Dan Verton
Publisher: Osborne/McGraw-Hill, 2003
Aimed at: General audience
Pros: Attempt to get inside mind of the hacker
Cons: Few helpful or engaging insights
Reviewed by: Harry Fairhead
Hacking once had a broader meaning than it does today – it used to mean "the ability to do something" as in "can we hack it?" For the last decade the word has a more sinister meaning – the breaking into computer systems or similar antisocial behaviour. You can try to put a good face on it. Hackers are just out to get knowledge and the ethics are that they do no harm. You can even attempt to make them into the good guys by pointing out that they show up the weaknesses in systems that are supposed to be secure - but it is difficult to avoid the observation that without hackers there would be less reason for the security. Hacking is a modern social phenomenon and there are bound to be books about it.
In fact there are very few that attempt to explain what hacking is all about from the perpetrator's point of view. Dan Verton's book promises to be just such an account. There have been great books on the world of computing as a social system – Tracy Kidder's "Soul of a New Machine", for example. However, this book isn't one of the better examples.
It starts off with a fictional account that tries to link hacking with the murders at Columbine High School in the USA. This is techno journalism at its worst. At the end of the fictional account we are told – this was fiction. From this point on you are left wondering if any of the over dramatised descriptions are about to be disowned in a similar fashion. We are given accounts of childhood incidents that are given pivotal roles in the development of later hacking tendencies. I grew very tired of reading "oh man", "some sh**" and reading about people with silly code names like genocide, mafiaboy and so on. The author does his best to inject some excitement into the subject matter but to my reading it simply falls flat and fails to engage – in fact it's embarrassingly bad in many places.
The real let down is that if you know anything about computers and have an imagination then you could have written this book if you had the courage to make it up. There are no surprises that make you feel that there is new information behind it all and at the end of it you just feel that you have had your worst expectations confirmed. I didn't enjoy reading this book and I didn't find it useful.