Wednesday, August 17, 2011

BOOKS: Kingpin by Kevin Poulsen

Like many a computer book these days, I first caught wind of the story behind Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground in Wired. Kevin Poulsen, the author of the book, is a senior editor at

Even in its short form, the story was fascinating. A lot of that has to do with Poulsen's background. He was a hacker. He understood the people and motivations and it's a feature of his talent that he then made the reader understand the story too. But I was a little bit leery that he could expand the story twenty-fold and keep my interest.

He succeeded.

Kingpin, the book, succeeds because it casts light where light doesn't shine all that often. And I include MOST of the law enforcement agencies who continue to create inter-agency blind spots that occasionally get filled by enterprising hacker-folk. Throughout the whole book, you will be amazed at just how often these criminals are either on somebody's fink list, used to be on one, or are being outright paid to snitch. A quick guess? Maybe 90 percent. And it's only dumb luck keeping the other ten percent from getting nicked.

And all the while, credit card and identity theft runs unabated, racking up BILLIONS of dollars of misery from you and me. Harrumph!

Max Vision, once Max Butler, and the owner of a half-dozen of the most infamous hacker handles on the 'net, is the kingpin of title fame. Max actually seems like a good guy who tried to do right (he wanted to help the feds and was on their payroll ... more than once). He wrote anti-hacking tools to help out. He ran a security service. He WAS a good guy. Who landed in prison and found himself hard to employ.

Now, Max was a bit hard to handle at times. Exuberance and sulkiness can lead to problems. But a LOT of people let Max down and helped create the kingpin he later became. That's not to absolve Max. He's a crook and knew what he was doing was crooked ... and brilliant.

He basically hijacked the whole criminal underground's 'market' for credit cards in one brilliant burst of programming. He literally flipped the switch one day and took control of most, if not all, of the world flea market for stolen card numbers and PINs. And he probably ran it longer than most anybody had, up to that time.

Eventually, one of the few smart feds, J. Keith Mularski, from, of all places, Pittsburgh, finally runs down West Coast-based Max and puts an end to his audacious enterprise.

When it's all said and done, the reader isn't left with a lot of wonder why hackers seem to be running rampant with only the odd Anonymous takedown for publicity reasons. And the reader has every reason to believe that those hackers and others like Max, will be out on the street, rather frequently in the employ of the government, running loose with very little actual supervision. It's quite frightening.

But worth the read.

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