[techbooks] REVIEW: "Hackers: Crime in the Digital Sublime", Paul A. Taylor
- BKHAKERS.RVW 991024
"Hackers: Crime in the Digital Sublime", Paul A. Taylor, 1999,
%A Paul A. Taylor drpaul_a_taylor@...
%C 11 New Fetter Lane, London, England, EC4P 4EE
%O U$24.99 +44-71-842-2214 info@...
%P 198 p.
%T "Hackers: Crime in the Digital Sublime"
Following in the footsteps of Sarah Ford, Dorothy Denning, and Ray
Kaplan, Paul Taylor is attempting to open the world, and world view,
of those who make informal attempts to penetrate computer and
communications security to the security "expert." The book tries to
explain motivations, culture, and background, with a view to the
benefits of a dialogue between the official guardians and those who
pry at the gaps in the armour. Using extensive interviews with people
from both sides of the divide, Taylor attempts to put forward the
reality behind the hype.
Chapter one concentrates on the terms; hack, hacker, and hacking;
emphasizing the original meaning of creative and useful mastery of the
technology. Hacking culture is reviewed quite thoroughly in chapter
two, although perhaps not enough attention is paid to the divisions
and continuum that exists. (I was amused by the note in the preface
to the effect that nobody would admit to distributing viruses: virus
writers still occupy the lowest rung of the hacking ladder.)
Motivation is explored, and possibly too much credence given to self-
reporting, in chapter three. Chapter four is a marvel, a first rate
examination, and indictment, of the state of computer security (or,
perhaps, insecurity). Arguments for, and against, dialogue with, and
employment of, those who have done unauthorized security breaking are
given in chapter five. Chapter six, however, turns to presenting a
number of sociological theories about why hackers might be
marginalized. This material seems to have no purpose other than to
propose that such people are being treated unfairly. Chapter seven is
worse: even given the wretched track record of computer ethics
literature it is disappointing in that presents little content that is
germane to the discussion, and seems to wander off into miscellaneous
speculation. The conclusion, in chapter eight, also meanders, but
tries to dispel a number of myths that have grown up around the hacker
The book will probably not be a popular hit, which is a pity. I would
suggest two reasons for the low profile. The first is that Taylor is
making a conscious effort to avoid sensationalism, and, indeed, to
counter the sensational, and misinformed, reports of computer security
penetration that are prevalent in the popular media. The second
reason is not inherent in the nature of the material and is somewhat
unfortunate: Taylor's writing style is more "academic" than is
necessary, using, for example, the passive voice most of the time. (I
found the use of the word "whilst" to become quite jarring after a few
pages.) A good copy editing would help: your humble scribe, world's
worst proofreader that he is, still found a number of grammatical
errors, even outside of the quotations.
(Oddly, for all its academic formality, endnotes, and bibliography,
the work falls short in terms of clarity of references and citations.
I am quoted on page 84, but I can't figure out how. I am also dying
to know who the other "Dr. Taylor" is.)
The extensive use of interview materials, and quotations from other
works, is both a strength and a weakness. No one perspective is
allowed to dominate, and a great many arguments and opinions are
presented. The constant quotes from a variety of sources, however,
often reduce the readability of the work. I found the book very
difficult and time consuming to get through. Added to this, Taylor's
aversion to contaminating the source material with his own analysis
ensures that the text is very demanding of the reader's own analytical
skills and work.
Taylor does make a serious effort to give a fair and even presentation
to both sides of the argument, but it is still fairly obvious that his
sympathies lie in "detente." The title of the book itself indicates
this. There is a discussion of the derivation and evolution of the
"hacker" term, but the acceptance of the "popular" status of the word
to mean those who break into computers also allows those who break
into computer systems to present arguments for their behaviour as a
kind of discovery learning, without the supporting evidence that would
otherwise be necessary. In this, Taylor's work shares a weakness with
other, similar, books on the topic: "hacker" claims are taken at their
own valuation without much analysis of either factual or motivational
claims. Taylor has a great deal more material and a wider range of
direct contacts than Levy (cf. BKHACKRS.RVW), Sterling (cf.
BKHKRCRK.RVW), or Dreyfus (cf. BKNDRGND.RVW) and his conclusions are
significantly more reliable, but the fundamental defect remains.
There are also gaps in the coverage. Taylor does not dwell on the
basic fragility of data, nor the tendency of digital systems to
catastrophic failure under even the most minor perturbation. There
are also indirect effects of unauthorized system penetration. To give
only one example, the regular choice of NASA as a target, and the
media hype over even minor success, has had a negative impact on
budget appropriation, and therefore on the space program as a whole.
You can't claim much for the advancement of knowledge out of that.
With all the problems presented above, I still highly recommend this
work to anyone in the security field, or to anyone who wants to
understand either security work or an important part of the computer
culture. For all its flaws, Taylor's book is the most extensive and
detailed examination of the cracker phenomenon I have ever read. He
exposes a number of nasty little secrets that the computer industry as
a whole would prefer to forget. Hopefully this work will be
continued, expanded, and refined, to become a valuable classic in
technical security literature.
copyright Robert M. Slade, 1999 BKHAKERS.RVW 991024
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