Not Just the Money

Mattathias Schwartz

  • DarkMarket: How Hackers Became the New Mafia by Misha Glenny
    Vintage, 432 pp, £8.95, July 2012, ISBN 978 0 09 954655 9

Message boards are online forums typically concerned with a single subject, whose users can post public messages in ‘threads’ to do with a particular aspect of that subject, or exchange private messages. Most message boards are small operations that barely manage to cover the cost of server space. Users are brought together by a shared (usually offline) interest and tend to number in the hundreds or thousands. While Facebook requires that users’ online avatars mirror their legal, offline identities, almost everyone on message boards uses a pseudonym. While exchanges are frequently untruthful, gossipy or abusive, they also allow their authors’ personalities to surface in a way that would not be possible face to face or in anything they published online under their real names.

Message boards tend to fall under the influence of the users who have the most time to spend on them, and it often takes only a few conversational iterations before users are speaking a jargon of their own making. Here is a post from, a popular message board devoted to poker: ‘This results in bum hunters grimming people that want action, and others being afraid to sit because the likelihood of getting grimmed makes it inherently -ev to ever sit.’ And here is another, from a board devoted to the cultivation of magic mushrooms:

they colonised very fast with really thick myc, (sometimes fast growth gives me weak myc with some strains), after birthing to a 12qt sweater box, I let sit for 3 days to seal up a bit, then cased with 50/50+lime soaked in some bullseye water for a bit to help buffer. I saw one early pin on day 5, then my first count of 10 or so on day 7, it’s day 8 today and they are looking thick and good.

Message boards help the weird find the weird and get weirder. In the case of DarkMarket, one of the rogue message boards that Misha Glenny writes about, the bad found the bad and got even worse. Glenny’s story takes the form of a police procedural, set in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. His shifting band of hackers and unscrupulous entrepreneurs targeted the newly global network of credit and debit cards. Forged cards imprinted with the appropriate magnetic strip made it possible for them to withdraw cash from hundreds of thousands of ATM machines. The cybercriminals’ trail was gradually picked up by law enforcement agencies around the world as the authorities struggled to modernise laws and investigative techniques designed to deal with old-fashioned varieties of organised crime.

Glenny covered the Balkans during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and wrote three ambitious histories of the region. His fourth book, McMafia, examined how the underworld took advantage of globalisation in the 1990s, establishing partnerships and franchises in the manner of their corporate counterparts. In DarkMarket, Glenny traces a virtual landscape that maps onto familiar political geography, explaining, for instance, how the unreliable Soviet computers used in Ukraine and Bulgaria bred some of the world’s most adept technicians.

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