The Hacker Crackdown, by Bruce Sterling

Published 1992, 1994
Review by Tim

Book Cover The digital revolution has been touted as the most far-reaching development in the history of humanity. The idea is arguable, although I am reserving judgement. After all, the scientific revolution that originated with Sir Isaac Newton resulted in far more emphatic changes in the way people view the world, and live their everyday lives, than the advent of computers. We are no longer a dawn to dusk world of hunters, farmers and artisans, fabricating all of our own tools. In the 200 years since Newton, we have become a night-owl world, ever more dependent on an array of specialized tools and devices impossible for any one person to understand or assemble. As hard as this may be to swallow, future historians may well regard the development of computers and of cyberspace1 as only a logical, and perhaps minor, subsequent of the revolution of science that began in the late 17th century. We are, after all, used to thinking of ourselves as fairly clever fellows, and temporalcentricity2 is as egregious a human fault as ethnocentricity. The future may yet show us wonders that will humble us all.

Still, there is no denying that the pace of the digital revolution far exceeds that of any other technologically or sociologically inspired change in history. Wherever we end up in the long view, we still have to deal with the little picture here and now, and it is a picture that has become increasingly complex. The birth of digital cyberspace has gifted us with new issues of privacy, application of first ammendment rights, and their interactions with the security of essential services (like the 911 emergency telephone system and air traffic control) and financial transactions.

In the The Hacker Crackdown, Sterling explains how concern and, in some cases, paranoia over the activities of hackers3 led to a nationwide assault in 1990 on hacking activities in the United States by law-enforcement agencies, coordinated by the US Secret Service. The Hacker Crackdown is not an exposé of hacking, nor a journalistic account of true crime, although it contains elements of both. It is sociology, without the jargon.

Sterling details the events leading up to the crackdown, the crackdown itself, and the political consequences of the event. We are given a view of all of the players: the telephone companies, the hackers, the law enforcement agencies, and the civil libertarians. Along the way, we are given a capsule history of telecommunications, including the breakup of Ma Bell in 1983. We even learn something about the history and function of the US Secret Service. All of these issues are lucidly explained, and are spiced in addition with some rather bizzare anecdotes, such as how an eco-activist and former songwriter for the Greatful Dead came to be investigated for computer crime, and the unanticipated results!

Bruce Sterling is primarily a writer of fiction; specifically, he writes science fiction of a type known generically as "cyberpunk". Cyberpunk combines advanced data-transfer technologies with a generally dark world view, and Sterling is recognized as one of the seminal writers in the genre. For this reason, the upbeat conclusion of the book is something of a surprise. While recognizing that exploitation of cyberspace for criminal activity is inevitable, Sterling feels that the dangers can be handled, although it will require a fresh, cooperative approach among all of the players that is already well under way - and that in itself is a rather bizzare story!

Although originally published as a book, Sterling retained control of the copyright and the electronic reproduction rights. In 1994 he published an electronic edition of The Hacker Crackdown on the web, with a new preface and afterword. Copies of this book have been reproduced all over the web; a link to one of these copies is provided below.

The Hacker Crackdown

blue ribbonThe Electronic Frontier Foundation

1The term "cyberspace" was coined by a writer named William Gibson, to describe the digital world in which people meet and interact through phones and computers.

2I just invented the word, so don't bother looking it up!

3For the purpose of this review, the term "hacker" refers to an individual who conducts an unauthorized remote intrusion into a computer system. The book also considers the activities of "phreaks", who steal telephone service by various means.