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The Watchman: The Twisted Life and Crimes of Serial Hacker Kevin Poulsen Hardcover – March 31, 1997
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This is a first-rate detective story--and all true. It's the story of a seemingly invincible electronic thief, con man, and stalker--and the people who tracked him down. Jonathan Littman brings his readers straight into the world of cyberpunk crime as he shows the origins, development, and climax of the wildest and most audacious known crime spree in cyberspace. Hundreds of hours of interviews allow Littman to tell much of the story through the eyes of those who lived it, and his own edgy style and excellent pacing make for a thriller that's hard to put down.
From Library Journal
Littman (The Fugitive Game: Online with Kevin Mitnick, LJ 1/96) takes us inside the mind of yet another notable computer hacker. Kevin Poulsen electronically seized the phone lines of a major Los Angeles radio station to make certain he was the 101st caller. Over time, he won two Porsches, $22,000 in cash, and two trips to Hawaii. He was caught and charged with numerous computer and telephone crimes, the most serious of which alleged that he obtained a classified document from a military database. Poulsen became the first computer hacker in history to be charged with espionage, and in all he was charged with 19 counts of computer fraud, wiretapping, money laundering, and obstruction of justice. Littman offers a perspective on the social phenomenon of hacking in addition to the intricate legal and privacy issues involved here. Relying on interviews with both hackers and pursuers, pages of court filings, court transcripts, and associated documents, the author blends narrative with action in this riveting account of digital malfeasance. Recommended.?Joe Accardi, Northeastern Illinois Univ. Lib., Chicago
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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I read Jonathan Littman's two books first, and was very excited with the stories, and his factual presentation. His writing style is an excellent fit for the type of story he is telling. It was obvious that Littman researched the facts and presented them in an unbiased manner. I liked that he presented both the technical information and the human elements of the stories. I also liked that he exposed many myths and controversy regarding the players in the stories, like John Markoff's getting involved in the chase for Mitnick, crossing the ethical boundary between journalism and law enforcement.
I then read "Cyberpunk" by Markoff and Hafner. Boy, what a difference! Where Littman was factual, Markoff was more into storytelling. I cannot say who's right (I wasn't THERE), but Markoff just didn't come across as complete and factual, especially in light of Littman's comments on his questionable involvement in Mitnick's capture. I did, however, love Markoff's telling of the rtm story (Robert Tappan Morris - the sendmail internet worm guy). I'd give this book 3 stars.
I'd like to take a moment to comment on some other reviews that I think are unfair or inaccurate.
Regarding "The Watchman":
"Big Letdown" stated that there was too much technical information. I completely disagree. It's true that I personally enjoyed the technical details, but I also felt it was important insight into a hacker's curiosity response to forbidden systems. "Hmmm...Perhaps Jonathan should have done more research" stated that Littman didn't give Poulsen a chance, and made him out to be a monster. I wonder if we read the same book? I did not get the impression that Poulsen was a monster of any kind, just a kid addicted to the power and thrills of having absolute control over other people's forbidden systems. On the contrary, I think Littman did a professional, accurate, and entertaining presentation of the story and it's facts.
Regarding "The Fugitive Game":
"lots of clumsy writing here" stated that Littman tried to make Mitnick out to be a hero. Again, I have to wonder if we read the same book. Littman did no such thing. In fact, Littman "de-heroed" other characters that John Markoff pumped up in his telling of events. From reading the above-mentioned three books, Littman comes across as MUCH more factual. "Not Very good" stated that the story was boring, and to get other books like the Cuckoo's Egg, and maybe even At Large. The book was far from boring, but I'd have to agree that "The Watchman" was better (I give "The Fugitive Game" 4 stars, "The Watchman" 5 stars.) I guess I'll have to check out "Cuckoo's Egg" and "At Large" - at least the reviewer made alternative recommendations, which I thank him/her for.
Finally, to help the reader of this review judge how relevant my opinion is, I'll tell you where I'm coming from. I consider myself to be very technical. I really got started with computers back in 1978, about the same time these guys were getting going. I went through many of the same "phases" these hackers went through. I did things to computers that weren't supposed to be done - and got caught a couple times (ahh, the old days...) So I think I'm qualified to judge a "real" story. All three books were nostalgic for me, but Littman's were the most accurate, I think. In my opinion, he described what it was REALLY like: the curiosity, the intensity, the excitement of discovery, the thrill of the hunt, and the addiction of absolute control.
our telecommunications system, about a few people's ethics
abusing the power of that system, and about the state of
enforcement against violations of that system. All done
in a readable accounting of a small cast of characters' actions over a fifteen year period.
It's a difficult task to make day-to-day events readable,
much less involving. Littman has done a credible job here,
describing the exploits of a clique with a combination of
smarts, talent, and a moral code in which authority plays
much farther down the list than does knowledge, capability
or skill in manipulation.
What I find amazing in this recount is the ineptitude of
the investigative and law enforcement arms of local, state
and federal agencies in bringing a case against Poulsen.
Littman presents a balanced view of the criminal and the system against which the crimes were commited. Until the
maintainers and protectors of these systems admit their
vulnerabilities, phone phreaking of this magnitude will
increase, not decrease, in an ever digitally-conscious world. That the Attorney General was not able to make a
more compelling case--if all of Littman's accounts, or
Kevin's recall of them are true--speaks more to what the
Government and the Pacific Bell want to keep quiet.
That a person of Poulsen's ethics, curiosity and talent hacked PacBell offices isn't surprising (it's where the data is, to paraphrase Willy Sutton), that he did it repeatedly and for so long--physically and electronically--should make any citizen concerned for their privacy. Privacy not from the Poulsens or Mitnicks of the world, but from the phone companies and the agencies that use them on the fringes of the law.SAS is something every member of congress and
civil libertarian should be screaming about for oversight.
I agree with Lottor that "Serial Hacker" is redundant, but
notice also that Mark doesn't take issue with the title's
assertion that Kevin's life and crimes reveal a sociopath.
In the game Dungeons & Dragons, the appeal is that it is a
world where you make your own rules. Kevin is without a
doubt the dungeonmaster of California's phone system.
This book is the most intimate accounting of a very capable hacker's evolution. Does power corrupt, always? Certainly
power and curiosity were compelling drugs for Kevin Poulsen.
he is no longer in federal prison and is now once again loose on the
streets of LA. I know there are lots of great stories
to tell about his experiences and I'm sure Littman
will be great at making things sound more exciting and
less true than they are. With regard to the title it should
be noted that people are born Hackers, thus the term
"serial hacker" is quite redundant. Don't miss the little
picture of Littman at the bottom of the front cover.