Un­der­ground

Townsville Bulletin - - The Goss - Shari Tagli­abue

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:

Ad­dic­tive

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