By Suelette Dreyfus and Julian Assange Random House $ 24.95
FIRST published in 1997, Underground lifted the lid on the secretive, little-understood world of computer hacking. Writer/ journalist Suelette Dreyfus teamed up with elite hacker Julian Assange – yes, that Julian Assange – to lay bare the methods and motivations of the most notorious hackers of the 1980s and 1990s.
Although Underground was a riproaring tale that would put many espionage thrillers to shame, 10 years on it might only have appealed to a relatively niche market, if not for the WikiLeaks phenomenon.
While the embattled Assange now enjoys the support of millions who concur with his ideal of transparency in government, as a young man his anti-establishment attitude played out in a less public arena.
Operating mostly from their suburban bedrooms, anonymous young men dubbed themselves names such a s El e c t r o n , Ant h r a x , Mendax, Pheonix, Gandalf, Pad, Nom and Prime Suspect, and became some of the world’s best tech-heads.
Fascinated by the emerging world of computers – and with the internet still a pipedream – these mostly teenage boys honed their craft either trying to crack security codes on early Amiga games, or manipulating dial tones to make free telephone calls.
These lads came to understand computer systems even better than the people who designed them, becoming the scourge of telecommunications companies, and later, the military.
Onc e i n s i d e t h e s y s t e ms, t h e hackers preferred to think of themselves as visitors rather than intruders. The aim was to crack large computer systems and then poke around for files that housed operating manuals and passwords. Privileged information about the systems they were exploring was the ultimate prize.
Much was made in the media of the damage and destruction caused by hackers, but this was erroneous, later backed up by largely unsuccessful prosecutions and minimal penalties.
Often confused with ‘ carding’, the theft of credit card numbers required little skill and was looked at with disdain by hackers.
Although many were socially inept, all were exceptionally intelligent, taki ng apart t heir basic computer modems and discovering a challenging, forbidden universe.
I t ’ s l aughable t hat as parents watched television in the next room, their sons were burrowing through virtual passageways into sophisticated systems such as NASA.
Ultimately, they were hunted by the FBI or the Australian Federal Police; and their secret lives became public.
Although f i l l ed with computer jargon, Dreyfus has successfully turned meticulous research into a hugely enthralling narrative.
While the 1980s movie WarGames inspired many hackers, Underground is the real deal. Underbelly producers take note.
In a word: