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October 19, 2007

Laptop Warriors - Seamus Sweeney on the rise of the "hacker" novel: The Stealing The Network series

Posted by Seamus Sweeney

Stealing the Network: How to Own the Box
by Ryan Russell, Tim Mullen (Thor), FX, Dan "Effugas" Kaminsky, Joe Grand, Ken Pfeil, Ido Durbrawsky, Mark Burnett, and Paul Craig
Rockland, MA: Syngress Publishing, 2003
Paperback, £25

Stealing the Network: How to Own A Continent
by Ryan Russell, Jeff Moss, Kevin Mitnick, 131ah, Russ Rogers, Jay Beale, Joe Grand, Fyodor, FX, Paul Craig, Timothy Mullen (Thor), and Tom Parker
Rockland, MA: Syngress Publishing, 2004
Paperback, £22

Last May, the Estonian government's decision to relocate a statue of a Red Army soldier lead to vigorous protests from Vladimir Putin's Kremlin and ethnic Russians in Estonia and abroad. Most media coverage in the West focused on another confirmation of Putin's self-confidence, and of resurgent Russian sabre-rattling. Less remarked on - and less reported - was the fact that an EU member was virtually assaulted - and "virtually" here means the contemporary sense. An army of computers attacked Estonia's computer-based infrastructure. As the Estonian Minister for Defence later told Wired:

The attacks were aimed at the essential electronic infrastructure of the Republic of Estonia. All major commercial banks, telcos, media outlets, and name servers - the phone books of the internet - felt the impact, and this affected the majority of the Estonian population. This was the first time that a botnet threatened the national security of an entire nation.
[A botnet is basically a collection of computers whose security has been compromised and are being used for some nefarious purpose, usually unknown to the computer's owner.]

As Wired adds portentously:

Welcome to Web War One
Computer-phobic readers, if such a breed read a web-based publication, may be forgiven a sigh of exasperation. The phrase "Revenge of the Nerds" has rarely seemed more apt - for not only are the computer nerds and geeks derided in schools and college now the world's richest men, they are now claiming martial glory as their own.

So, war too goes digital. War has always been one of the staples - if not the staple - of popular fiction for men and boys of all ages. War and adventure are linked so closely that we often hear heard the war in Iraq described as "a foreign policy adventure".

Of course, while the martial virtues and the computing virtues seem, at first, diametrically opposed, on closer inspection this is not the case. Someone once remarked that anyone who uses the phrase "military efficiency" without irony has never been in the army.

Be that as it may, the military mind is methodical, plans ahead, tries to break down the unknowable chaos of war into manageable units one can train and prepare for, and while the outcome is vastly more unknowable than the in theory entirely predictable response of a computer, shares with computer programming a mission of controlling the world.

Syngress specialise in computer security manuals, most of which are in a traditional format. They also publish the Stealing the Network series, which has become a series of "cyber-thrillers", fictional stories about hackers using real techniques and technologies. How To Own the Box, the first in the series, is a set of short stories, while How To Own A Continent is a novel.

Jeff Moss, President & CEO of Black Hat, Inc. in his introduction (both books have slightly different introductions, with essentially the same material) is at pains to point out that "hacker" is abused in the media as a term for computer criminal. "Hacker" originally simply meant competent programmers and system administrators. They would "hack up" the source code of a system to fix things, because they would have the big picture of the entire system in mind at all times - unlike less competent computer folk who may know their small patch very well but have no vision of the entire system.

You would not describe a criminal auto mechanic as simply a mechanic, and you shouldn't do the same with a hacker, either.
The introduction is a useful primer for understanding hacking. Interestingly the hardest attacks to defend against are not the technical assaults of viruses and worms, but physical attempts to literally hack into systems and what are called social engineering attacks - essentially closest to the traditional confidence artist's manipulation of people's gullibility, naÔvete and trust.

The popular image of brilliant hackers taking over the Pentagon with a few keystrokes belies the sheer hard work, patience and ingenuity hacking seems to require. Hackers, as portrayed in the book, generally exploit the inefficiency and laziness of most system administrators. They remind me somewhat of the Oakland Athletics, the heroes of Michael Lewis' Moneyball - poor outsiders in the world of baseball who methodically identified the great inefficiencies of the traditional scouting and recruitment system and played well above their weight.

The books are written by committee - both boast nine contributors, some of whom go by a nom du hack such as "FX", "131ah" and "Fyodor" (yes, a tribute to Dostoyevksy, and Fyodor is properly embarrassed that a Google search for "Fyodor" lists him about the great proto-existentialist), some of whom such as Kevin Mitnick have gained fame well beyond the world of hacking.

How To Own A Continent boasts one of the most compelling opening chapters Iíve ever read. Much of both books is imbued with a kind of edgy nihilism, slightly contemptuous of the non-hacker and proud of technical competence and ingenuity. This opening chapter has a punch and narrative drive that sucks the reader in:

How much money would you need for the rest of your life? How much would you need in a lump sum so that you never had to work again, never had to worry about bills or taxes or a house payment. How much to live like a king? Your mind immediately jumps to Bill Gates or Ingmar Kamprad with their billions. You think that is what you would need.

Ah, but what if you wanted to live in obscurity, or at least were forced to? It's not possible with that much money. You might actually need a billion dollars to live like royalty in the United States. It can be done; a few people live that way, but their lives are reality TV. If that kind of attention means the end of your life, either by a charge of treason or a mob hit, then the US isn't an option. The US has a culture of being intrusive, everyone knows too much about everyone else.

The narrator explores the pitiless logic of this completely self-sufficient life - and surely total self-sufficiency is a common fantasy? For most of us, it will always stay in the world of fantasy. As the narrator explains,
It was not without its costs; several years of my life and my wife. Now I'm alone, there's no one to take care of but myself. No reason to stay in Virginia. No distractions.
Over the rest of this chapter, a remorseless routine is laid out. It is utterly focused, but focused on what? We have hints, but no clear picture. The next chapter transfers the action to Lagos, and the plot proper commences. Some of what follows is impenetrable even if you are paying attention:
He logged in to the mac3 machine with another one of his stolen accounts, and switched over to his wstearns context by running the wstearns shell:

[mac3:~] ajr % ~mrash/Public\Drop\ Box/.shells/zsh-wstearns mac%

He next ssh'ed into the VA teach cluster using wstearnsí password:

Mac% ssh wstearns@gateway.cluster.vatech.edu
wstearns@gateway.cluster.vatech.edu's password:

I doubt Robert Louis Stevenson or Captain Marryat could write a ssh'ing into a cluster scene to match that. However, generally the detail is either incidental or secondary to the thriller aspect of the plot, and in the context of the scene perfectly understandable. What matters is not what the characters type or what technology they use (though the authors obviously take considerable pride in the technical accuracy of their work) but the insight into the hacker mindset - problem-solving, logical, methodical, patient.

Military metaphors abound in the hacking world. Most obviously, the prefix war - as in wardialling, wardriving, warwalking and even warbiking. The etymology of all these terms is rooted in the 1983 film War Games.

War-driving, walking and biking all involve searching for wireless networks while in various forms of transport - either as a hobby, to identify unsecured networks to use for free, or for some other purpose. All you need is the free program NetStumbler and a wireless enabled laptop or PDA, and off you go on this addictive (as I can attest) if rather pointless (unless you actually are motivated to, and know how to, use the information) activity. The industry critics who have praised the books describe them as "attack orientated".

How To Own A Continent is predominantly set in Africa, and while Conde Nast Traveler may not be commissioning the authors for sweeping travelogues anytime soon, their pithy style is in its own way evocative:

He took a taxi to Hotel Le Meridian. Everything in Lagos was dirty and broken. Even with its four stars and a price tag of $300 per night, the hotel's water had the same color as Dr Pepper. You couldn't even brush your teeth in this water let alone drink it. He went down to the bar area, and had a Star beer and chilli chicken pizza. It was not long before the prostitutes hanging around made their way to him. He was blunt but polite with them - he was in no mood for a dose of exotic STDs, and besides, he had work to do the next morning.
This is the world of the hacker - immensely proud of their competence and focused on their work. And how different is this from other heroes of popular, male-orientated fiction? Read Bond (rather than watch the glib cartoons of movies) and what comes across is Fleming's hero's professional pride, his self-recrimination when things go wrong, his satisfaction when things go right.

Male popular fiction has historically been criticised for dealing with the complex world of emotions and feelings by ignoring it. Put simply, the predominantly masculine world of the martial adventure story ignores, idealises or denigrates women. Perhaps the funniest moment of unintentional humour comes in the How to Own the Box story h3X's Adventures in Networkland by FX.:

h3X is a hacker, or to be more precise, she is a hackse (from hexe, the German word for witch).
h3X occupies herself in the course of trying to exploit an American university's vulnerable printer servers (I think). FX, we learn from the introductory biographies, is male. It's an age-old literary problem - can a male writer convincingly convey a woman's inner life, and vice versa? Perhaps the reader can judge if FX gets it right:
Since itís about one in the morning (CET) on a Thursday (actually it's Friday already), h3X decides to pay the local house club a visit and see if there is a nice piece of meat to play with in place of the printer. She puts the freshly discovered devices in her list file and makes a note about that one particular go-and-never return box. Then it's time for DJs, vodka-lemon, and possibly some dude with a decent body and half a brain - though she knows that's a hard-to-find combination.
It seems perhaps slightly ungallant to suggest that h3X's persona might form some kind of wish fulfilment for hackers - but passages like the following make it difficult to suggest otherwise:
Inspecting about 50 different Cisco router configurations for hints on the application of this particular black or blue box is as boring as it sounds. You need to proceed methodically and stay concentrated, and this basically sucks, since you don't see real progress being made. It's the same for h3X, but females are sometimes a lot better at concentrating than males, and so she spends the better part of the night, trying to figure out interconnections and other facts about the network. After that, she barely has enough energy left to sit on the couch and watch some TV before she dozes off. The phone rings several times in an attempt to make this attractive, young member of society participate in what people call nightlife, but it goes unheard.
There's a bathos to the last line that couldn't be bettered. "What people call nightlife" indeed. But while it is easy to mock the occasional clunky dialogue and characterisation, and the occasional confirmation of the computer nerd stereotype, the books have a compelling power. For me at least they pass the Pageturning Test, along with the Reread Test the only assessment of a thriller that really counts.

And like boy's fiction of earlier eras, the aim is not to produce a masterpiece of psychological penetration, or to faithfully chart the emotional life of the hacker, but to recount tales of derring-do and adventure. These adventures take place almost entirely in virtual space, but the sense of excitement is still there.

And so what if it is often incomprehensible? I barely understand the naval manoeuvring in Patrick O'Brian, but still derive much pleasure from the books (granted, much of this is from Aubrey and Maturin and the precision of the description of the world, rather than the action as such) In his review on this site of the film Miami Vice, Christopher Peachment argued that:

Not understanding the professional jargon is one of the great joys of watching any new American TV series or film. Think back to the beginnings of ER. It took several shows before you could follow what the doctors were shouting over the mayhem and blood. So too with The Shield, currently the best show on British TV and nearly impenetrable thanks to the cop's street slang.
And the art of skipping the boring or impenetrable is part of the art of reading (although this can be taken too far).

Finally the universe of Stealing the Network is far from amoral. Just as in boy's stories of the past, the good are rewarded and the bad punished. In the story Just Another Day At the Office in How To Own The Box, the anonymous protagonist begins highly-paid industrial espionage against his own employer, A42:

A42 was contracted by the U.S. Government to research new technologies for a next-generation stealth-landmine.
Obviously this is a particularly high-security workplace, and our narrator uses a variety of ingenious technical attacks, physical attacks, and social engineering to derive the information. The Epilogue, while lacking much local colour, summarises the disaffection of the successful traitor (and is reminiscent of Henry Hill's closing monologue in Goodfellas):
I can't disclose much about my location. Let's just say it's damp and cold. But it's much better to be here than in jail, or dead. I thought I had it made - simple hacks into insecure systems for tax-free dollars. And then the ultimate heist: breaking into a sensitive lab to steal one of the most important weapons the U.S. had been developing. And now it's over. I'm in a country I know nothing about, with a new identity, doing chump work for a guy who's fresh out of school.
Proud of their profession, daring, ingenious, patient, methodical, contemptuous of "chump work", playing the game for the game's sake more than for the supposed casus belli - the hackers of the Stealing The Network books are not so far from the military heroes of popular literature as we might think.

Seamus Sweeney is a medical graduate and freelance writer.


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Go back a little further in literature, keeping eyes open for weak and limited characterisation compensated for by technical details, and we come across Nevil Shute - in his day, a million selling author with Hollywood falling over themselves for screen adaptations - now all but forgotten.

Posted by: Eddie Willers at October 20, 2007 01:30 PM
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