by Brad Nelson 4/20/14
How do you run into a book? Sometimes by hook or by crook. And I happened to run across this one by chance and got to reading it…and couldn’t put it down. It must appeal to my secret desire to push back against “the man.”
Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground follows the story of a brilliant computer hacker named Max Bulter, aka “Max Vision,” and aka several dozen online names a well. Long story short, was the kid bipolar or did he just enjoy the excitement of breaking the law using high technology and his nifty brain? The author doesn’t speculate. But clearly this kid loved hacking. And clearly, like so many other people, his online alter ego took on a life of its own.
This relatively short book (288 pages, I started it last night and finished it late this morning) is a tour de force of hacking, particularly meaningful hacking (as it were) where there were higher stakes involved than just changing your grades on the high school or college server.
These hackers were dealing in tens of millions of dollars of stolen credit cards. And one myth was exploded in this book: Your credit card number is relatively safe if you use it to make online purchases (but don’t be stupid). The vast majority of card/pin numbers were stolen at retail card-swipe machines.
The methods were often surprisingly easy (with a little know-how). And the author generally does a swell job of giving you some basics on how the hackers hacked, cracked, and sacked the clueless retailers. Often it was because security was extremely lax. But, surprisingly, this was not a feature exclusive to the lawful side of society. As the book shows, the hackers sites themselves were often woefully insecure. And the hero/villain of our story, Max (and he sometimes wore the white hat as well as the black one) took pride in taking out competing sites where the stealing of credit cards numbers were discussed, as well as other aspects of this underground criminal economy.
Although following the life of Max, and a few other of the key hackers portrayed, could be a bit repetitive (the scams were all similar, the grudges generally the same), Author Kevin Poulsen weaves an intriguing story. He involves us in the exciting, and often pathetically juvenile, lives of some of these hackers.
And you perhaps might not feel so bad about parts of Ukraine being invaded by the Russians. Ukraine is/was a lawless hacker central.
The main character, Max, might well be dismissed as “bipolar” — a sort of postmodern disease that seems to be a stand in for excusing bad behavior. Whatever the case may be, Max himself was generally likable. Even his arresting officers were surprised how nice he was. His online persona was boisterous, belligerent, and bellicose, but Max in person was usually a pussy cat….except when he wasn’t (one of his first brushes with the law was over his alleged attempted strangling of his girlfriend).
In this book, white hat often flipped to black hats, and back again. That is, these very skilled computer nerds would often go to work for a legitimate security firm. These were highly-qualified people (with their skills having been honed by a little hacking).
But the temptation for quick money (and probably just the thrill of doing it) caused many of them to don a black hat. Many, of course, did both at the same time. And quite a few, once caught, put on the white hat, helping the FBI and Secret Service to entrap other black-hatted hackers. Even then, some of these would do a little illegal hacking in the background, playing both ends at the same time.
I think most nerdy types (and others) will enjoy this book. It’s also available for the Kindle.
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