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Freedman (Brainmakers, 1994) and Mann (coauthor, Noah's Choice, 1995) tell the tale of a reclusive teenage hacker, alternatively dubbed Phantomd and Infomaster, who hopscotches around the Internet, breaking into systems and generally wreaking havoc online; his "absurd, dangerous, monomaniacal course" of trespassing on computer networks causes even his hacker cronies to fear him. With incisive descriptions and prose that's never overburdened by jargon, the authors chronicle the progression of Phantomd's online intrusions from university computers to Intel to top-secret government databases, and the federal investigation that finally nabs him. Unfortunately, the story loses steam at the end, when the FBI inexplicably decides not to have him prosecuted. Still, the book works because of the authors' skill at portraying their characters and building suspense and momentum from online events that are difficult to visualize. The best character, by far, is Phantomd himself, a disabled and massively antisocial youth who is capable of spending days at a time at his computer. As the hacker gets deeper and deeper into trouble, his brother tries futilely to save him, and the book takes on the dimensions of an information-age tragedy. Phantomd's last line, in particular, is heartbreaking, a testament to how the writers deftly recruit the reader's sympathy for the story's antagonist. Finally, the book becomes a portent: The authors make a strong case for the vulnerability of the Internet, describing its "electronic Maginot lines" and their inadequacy in the face of patient young invaders with powerful tools.
With this extraordinary story and its hard-learned lessons, the authors should make more than a few of their readers wary of staking their privacy on the online world.
Time Digital A thriller...spine-chilling...reads like a John Grisham novel.
The San Diego Union-Tribune A fascinating story....Read it and you'll never look at the Internet or your computer quite the same.
Jim Settle's father had been an FBI agent in Asheville, North Carolina. While other kids were playing baseball, Jim and his twin brother, John, kept the old man company, cruising the lazy, steaming back roads of the nearby Cherokee reservation in a Bureau car, a Nash that was nondescript in a way that screamed G-man to anyone who cared to notice. Settle's father never seemed overly caught up by the job, except when someone got killed on his watch. Jim knew when that had happened: his father would come home with a tight jaw and a silent glare. Usually there was another sign, too. He brought home the corpse's soiled clothes and hung them on the clothesline, where they dried out before being shipped to the Bureau's crime lab. Playing tag in the yard, Jim and John dodged around the bloody, bullet-holed shirts and underwear of killers and stoolies.
Although the brothers were fraternal, not identical, twins, they were uncannily hard to distinguish. Strangers called to them in the street, mistaking one brother for the other. The brothers were close, as twins often are. Together they played high school sports and chased girls. Together they attended Presbyterian College, a tiny institution in Clinton, South Carolina. And together they were swept up into the Vietnam War, although neither actually saw combat. John served his time in Korea. Jim was stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina -- couldn't make it out of the Carolinas, he liked to joke. He was made commander of an administrative battery charged with tracking and distributing ammunition, supplies, and payroll. It was a low-morale unit, filled with sullen college kids who wanted to be anywhere but Fort Bragg. Settle found he had a knack for working with misfits, though; he could meld them into a team that excelled. Part of the reason for his success was that he secretly thought of himself as a misfit, too. He always took on the oddball assignments.
He didn't look like a misfit. He was a tall man with a sharp, almost birdlike nose. His posture was stiff, almost military; when he walked, he swung his arms in short, choppy arcs. Just enough North Carolina twang remained in his voice to establish his bona fides as a good ol' boy. He had a thick torso that suggested, correctly, that he was on friendly terms with the business end of a beer bottle.
Growing up, Settle had always intended to go to law school. But by the time he left the military, he was supporting a family. He had married his college sweetheart; their daughter was now eighteen months old. Settle found himself thinking, well, Dad has a steady paycheck from the Bureau. The nation's not going to run out of crime in the near future. And the FBI liked legacy kids -- they knew Bureau culture. He joined in 1968.
In 1979, after a decade in the streets of Washington, D.C., Settle was asked to join a group of Department of Justice attorneys on a task force investigating federal procurement scams. Most agents avoided this sort of gig -- procurement fraud was not the kind of crime that sparkled on a resume. Try telling your next supervisor that while the rest of your office had been taking down murderers and extortionists, you'd been going mano a mano with government waste.
Settle was intrigued, though, because the case involved computers. In the army his brother had been assigned to missile-control systems, which acquainted him with this new technology; Settle had learned a bit, too. Now John was doing well in Hartford, Connecticut, as a computer manager for Traveler's Insurance. Given the opportunity, Settle liked the idea of learning more about these putty-colored boxes that had taken over his brother's life. It would be pleasant, he thought, to spend a little time working with a staff that could put together two consecutive English sentences.
The task force was going after the Computer Sciences Corporation in El Segundo, California, which sold the government time on its mainframe computers -- and, according to investigators, overcharging Uncle Sam by millions of dollars. Settle spent months paging through financial records before he figured out the scheme. Washington bought so many services from the firm that as a practical matter it couldn't audit them all. The General Services Administration -- the branch of the government that controlled billing -- used an accounting program that spot-checked a few items, in much the same way that light-bulb manufacturers test only a few bulbs from every batch. By reading the code, Settle concluded, a Computer Sciences vice-president had figured out which services were being audited and jacked up the prices on the others. (After a three-year legal battle, Computer Sciences settled for almost $3 million but did not admit guilt; the vice-president pleaded no contest to two charges and was fined $20,000.)
Settle was fascinated. Just by deciphering the gibberish in a computer program, an executive had bilked Uncle Sam out of millions. He had stolen in a single year much more money than a bank robber would take in a lifetime of theft, and he had done it from the air-conditioned comfort of his office. When word of this got out, Settle realized, it would change the face of crime. Why would criminals risk their lives mugging people at gunpoint if they could make much more by reaching through the Internet to steal corporate information from an office on the other side of the country? If one wanted to look at crime in business terms -- a natural stance for a career FBI agent -- then computer misuse was going to be the criminal growth industry of the future.
Copyright © 1997 by David H. Freedman and Charles C. Mann
Posted July 14, 2001
Forget what you've seen in movies and on tv...this is a real-life story about a real-life person who 'hacked the planet.'
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