Ian Stewart

  • The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier by Bruce Sterling
    Viking, 328 pp, £16.99, January 1993, ISBN 0 670 84900 6
  • The New Hacker’s Dictionary edited by Eric Raymond
    MIT, 516 pp, £11.75, October 1992, ISBN 0 262 68079 3
  • Approaching Zero: Data Crime and the Computer Underworld by Bryan Clough and Paul Mungo
    Faber, 256 pp, £4.99, March 1993, ISBN 0 571 16813 2

On 29 June 1989, a security manager for the US telephone company Indiana Bell received an anonymous telephone call. In a menacing tone a young man’s voice informed him that he had planted bombs in several switching systems known as 5ESSs. ‘They’re set to blow on a national holiday. They could be anywhere in the country – it’s a sort of competition, a security test.’ On 15 January 1990 – Martin Luther King Day – AT–T’s long-distance telephone switching system went out of action for nine hours. About seventy million calls went uncompleted.

Three days later the United States Secret Service – an organisation originally set up to protect the President – mounted a nation-wide sweep, targeted in particular at a group calling itself the Legion of Doom. The bombs to which the menacing young man had referred were computer programs, not explosives. He was a hacker, a term that in The Hacker Crackdown refers to a few thousand talented but anarchically – sometimes criminally – inclined people, whose lives revolve around unauthorised access to computer systems. The New Hacker’s Dictionary would strongly disagree, and call him a ‘cracker’ – in which case I suppose the appropriate title would be The Cracker Hackdown.

Hackers in the Sterling sense communicate by email (electronic mail) using bulletin boards – individual computers, ‘nodes’ on the global network, which maintain files that anyone with a modem and the right phone numbers can dial up, read or write. They inhabit what the SF writer William Gibson calls ‘cyberspace’, the linked electronic interiors of the world’s computers. Cyberspace is real, even though it has no overt physical presence. The American telephone system lives in cyberspace. Its ‘switches’ are enormously complex computers, which automatically route calls to the far ends of the earth or the house next door, make charges to accounts, digitise conversations and interleave them with hundreds of others to fit more of them into limited numbers of phone lines, and then separate them all out again at the other end so that they can be understood. Hackers mostly see themselves as the electronic equivalent of Robin Hood. To the telcos – telephone companies – they are rats lurking in the cyberspatial wainscoting. The Secret Service didn’t take much serious notice of them – until Martin Luther King Day. The Hacker Crackdown concentrates on the AT–T crash, what led up to it, and what it led to. Sterling is a gripping writer – he is an SF author, best known for The Difference Engine, written with Gibson – and he really knows how to hook his reader and tell a story.

The antics of criminal-type hackers should not be confused with the activities of the far wider community of ‘serious’ computer programmers. I am writing this review during a visit to the University of Waterloo in Canada – one of the world’s great centres for real computing. I’m not actually visiting the computer science department: I’m at the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences, a new international research centre recently set up by the Canadian Government. Waterloo is the home of one of the basic tools of the mathematical trade, the computer program MAPLE, which was developed here. It is a symbolic algebra program. Instead of just crunching numbers, MAPLE crunches symbols. It is widely used in mathematical research to carry out calculations that would otherwise be very tedious – and probably full of mistakes. MAPLE takes care of routine algebraic manipulations, leaving the user free to think.

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