Thursday, June 8, 2017


CYBERPUNK: Hackers and Outlaws on the Computer Frontier
© 1991 Katie Hafner
400 pages

Cyberpunk takes readers back to the early days of hacking, when it was so old-school that computers weren’t involved. Using three case  in the United States and western Germany,  Katie Hafner’s history introduced readers in 1991 to the general idea of hacking, and her history sheds some light on what hackers were, what they did, and what they might want. It’s a fun look at early internet history, with the net as we know it developing slowly  throughout the course: ARPAnet, the internet’s predecessor, only appears halfway in.

The story begins with telephone lines, which -- in the mid-20th century -- bored teenagers began to examine with great interest.  Kevin Mitnick and Susan “Thunder” met over their mutual interest in learning to detect the patterns used by telephone switching systems and reproducing the sounds to manipulate their way through the boards, arranging free phone calls for themselves. (This was a bit of a cultural education for me -- evidently there were conference call lines advertised where people called in and just chatted with whoever was also on the circuit, a telephone chatroom!)  When the systems became controlled via computers,  Kevin, Susan, and a few more of their friends began tinkering with them.  (For readers born in the eighties, whose first computers came with web browsers, it takes a bit of chewing to realize that Mitnick and Thunder were literally dialing other computers;  telephone and computer network access systems were much more closely related)  Their explorations would eventually led to purloined and privileged accounts on sensitive systems across the United States; Susan had a particular interest in looking at military hardware.  The group weren’t plundering records for profit.

Although this group acquired an enormous amount of access via its steady experimentation, little was involved in the way of programming. They weren’t creating bugs to invade systems;  at most they rooted through the dumpsters of phone and computer-access companies looking for manuals, notes, and other juicy bits of detritus. The manuals not only allowed them to understand the systems they were ‘phreaking’, but often included passwords from people who hadn’t yet developed any sense of security.  They also engaged in what Hafner calls ‘social engineering’ -- lying, essentially, and obtaining information by talking to telecommunications and networking personnel under different guises -- almost exactly like phishing, but they did it in person. Eventually an interpersonal feud led to one of the crew being turned in, and the tip was used to great effect by a security specialist who had been doggedly tracking their excursions.

From here, Hafner moves to a group in Germany whose hacking begins to resemble what we in the 21st understand it to be. Initially, they too were interested only in the thrill of entering computer systems.  Unlike the American group, “Chaos” did experiment with programs to do their work for them -- and unlike the Americans, some of the Germans became interested in converting their skills into currency. Specifically, they approached East German border guards (who connected them to KGB personnel), offering to sell them information obtained through the networks.   The Soviets’ real interest was in the actual software -- compilers, especially -- but they were willing to engage in occasional business.  (Chaos also claimed to be working on behalf of world peace, since if a balance of power was maintained, war was less likely.)

The third act in Hafner’s book concerns the “Morris worm”, the invention of a son of the NSA who invented a self-spreading program to explore the size of the internet. An error in judgement allowed the program to collect several instances of itself on one machine, consuming their memory, and causing system after system to grind to a halt.  The worm infected ten percent of all machines then connected to the internet. Needless to say, this unexpected attack caused a panic, and in the resulting trial some members of the cyber-communications industry were out for blood despite it being fairly obvious that the culprit hadn’t intended any harm and had in fact sent off anonymous warnings within a couple of hours of noticing that his creation had gone berserk.  Although a zealous prosecutor -- and an equally zealous witness, the man who had led the hunt for the Mitnick intrusion -- did their best to incarcerate Morris, in the end the judge erred on the side of mercy and concluded with a sentence of community service, probation, and a large fine.

Cyberpunk was quite the education for me.  My interest in the early days of the internet, and in particular the quasi-libertarian ethos of some of the personalities attracted to it, first interested me in the volume.  Most of the people cataloged here are quirky individuals, all uncomfortable in school but obsessive about learning the ins and outs of different systems.  They were driven to explore a new world, to prove themselves masters of it -- but they were also inspired by the literature they were reading. From time to time books like Shockwave Rider,  Neuromancer, and the Illumantus Trilogy show up. (Interestingly, the latter was used as a staple of one of the hacker characters in David Ignatius' The Director..)   Although Hafner was recounting these cases to an early 1990s audience just starting to explore the consumer-oriented internet,  the cases as arranged offer a look at the internet and its cultured as they evolved.  I enjoyed it enormously.

As a side note: the case of Kevin Mitnick continues provoking controversy, with numerous books authored by him and others arguing with one another over the "truth".  According to this book's epilogue, Hafner's own account is "80%" true.


  1. I read a lot of this sort of stuff about 20 years ago. Its really interesting to see how the present Hackers started off dumpster diving and phone phreaking even before computers as we know them came into existence. I suppose in a very general sense 'hackers' have existed as long as technology has - they're just called different things: Tinkerers for example.

    Oh, and I found another example for you:

    The Electronic Pirates - DIY Crime of the Century by John Chesterman and Andy Lipman (FP: 1988)

  2. Ooh, one from the eighties! :) Even better. Part of the fun in this for me is learning about the early computer and internet culture, and -- as the books move forward -- remembering stuff from the 1990s.

    1. It's very dated but interesting partially because of that. It's part of the fun of reading 'technical' books from decades gone by especially when they speculate about the 'future' that we've already lived through!

    2. If you liked the one from the late 80's you'll love this one I've just 'found' on my shelves:

      Computer Crime by Gerald McKnight (FP: 1973). Checked that date TWICE. It's reading right!