At Large: The Strange Case of the World's Biggest Internet Invasion

At Large: The Strange Case of the World's Biggest Internet Invasion

by Charles C. Mann, David H. Freedman


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Hailed as "a chilling portrait" by The Boston Globe and "a crafty thriller" by Newsweek, this astonishing story of an obsessive hacker promises to change the way you look at the Internet forever.
At Large chronicles the massive manhunt that united hard-nosed FBI agents, computer nerds, and uptight security bureaucrats against an elusive computer outlaw who broke into highly secured computer systems at banks, universities, federal agencies, and top-secret military weapons-research sites. Here is "a real-life tale of cops vs. hackers, by two technology writers with a flair for turning a complicated crime and investigation into a fast-moving edge-of-your-seat story" (Kirkus Reviews, starred). At Large blows the lid off the frightening vulnerability of the global online network, which leaves not only systems, but also individuals, exposed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684835587
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 06/03/1998
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 930,800
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.43(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Charles C. Mann is the author of 1491, which won the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Keck award for the best book of the year. A correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, Science, and Wired, he has covered the intersection of science, technology, and commerce for many newspapers and magazines here and abroad, including the New York Times, Vanity Fair, the Washington Post, and more. In addition to 1491, he was the co-author of four other non-fiction books. He is now working on a companion volume to 1491. His website is

David H. Freedman is a contributing editor for Inc. Magazine, and has written on science, business, and technology for The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Science, Wired, and many other publications. His newest book, Wrong, about why experts keep failing us, came out in June, 2010. His last book (coauthored) was A Perfect Mess, about the useful role of disorder in daily life, business, and science. He is also the author of books about the US Marines, computer crime, and artificial intelligence. Freedman's blog, “Making Sense of Medicine,” takes a close, critical look at medical findings making current headlines with an eye to separating out the frequent hype. He lives near Boston.

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 2: Crazy House

Washington, D.C.

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

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