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Bruce Sterling – The Hacker CrackdownThe Hacker Crackdown is/was Bruce Sterling's first non-fiction book (he has written a 2nd one since, Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years) – essentially this is the sound of a successful author putting his fiction/SF work to the side, and writing a piece of classical, well-researched journalism on the hacker/phreak/cracker 'digital underground' of 1989/90; a crackdown which affected figures in his circle of acquaintances (not even for legal reasons, but for overreach and general hamfistedness of the agencies involved) and which he felt could just as well have caught him up in its sweep.

He portraits, in a very readable form, the beginning of computer crime, pre-Internet (ie with dial-up Bulletin Board Systems as main hub of these groups and communities!); with the Legion of Doom, Acid Phreak, and Phiber Optik (just to name a few handles which rang a bell from my time on the BBS scene… it's not that long ago, honestly!) and of Operation Sundevil and similar efforts by the law enforcement agencies. And it ends with the Well and the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation – something which profoundly affected and shaped the discussion and development of privacy and legal arrangements on the nascent Internet, and continues to do so.

The book is structured in very clear and focused chapters on the different topics:

  • Chronology of events
  • Introduction by the author (including his motivation for writing this)
  • Crashing the System (the story)
  • The Digital Underground (the hackers)
  • Law and Order (the agencies and groups involved)
  • The Civil Libertarians (the well, and EFF)
  • Index (yes, an honest to God proper index of names, places, concepts etc!)

A lot of things have, for reasons obvious to the reader (I would hope) moved on since then; both the hackers and computer criminals (to make that distinction) as well as the law enforcement agencies will have proliferated and increased in sophistication, reach, and stakes many times over.
Although, especially the reviewed legislation, responsibilities and constraints of the various agencies in 'The Digital Underground' might have evolved, but I can imagine only by getting even more complex, and even less clearly delineated than it was in 1990!

Still, this is a fascinating story, very well written and highly readable. Most of the lessons are still relevant, with the issues still present and the questions still unanswered. And the EFF is needed more than ever these days…

If you want to understand where things started, and why some things are the way the are now – here's a book which tells a good part of the story!

Title: The Hacker Crackdown
Subtitle: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier
Author: Bruce Sterlin
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL:
Publisher:  Penguin
Publication Date: 1992
Review Date: 100914
ISBN: 0140177345
Price: UKP6.99 (cover)
Pages: 352
Format: Paperback
Topic: Law
Topic: Hacking

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