At Large: The Strange Case of the World's
Biggest Internet Invasion
Just as your average criminal is a really lackwit lowlife
stumbling and bumbling from one botched heist to the next,
the typical computer hacker is nothing more than the modern
equiv of a teenager joyriding the sleepy backroads in Pop's
Buick. Most of the time, what the media calls a "cyber
terrorist" is a pimply teenager with a modem, bored
in the suburbs, venting his unanswered, boyish aggression
by pissing on virtual private property.
In the case of the pseudonymous Matt Singer, however, our
hapless, harmless teenage hacker actually wormed his way
into enough so-thought "secure" systems and ruffled
enough feathers to find himself under Federal investigation.
David Freedman and Charles Mann tell
his story, which they bill as the "world's biggest Internet
invasion," in At Large. For almost two years, the
nineteen-year-old Singer drilled his way into the systems
of Portland State University, MIT, NASA, the Laurence Livermore
Research Center, and the Los Alamos Nuclear Research Plant -- to
name a few. At first, the authorities feared a terrorist
or spy; his intrusions coincided suspiciously with several
hush-hush telco crashes. But Singer ultimately proved himself
a true teenage computer misfit -- he suffered from viral hepatitis
and learning disabilities which left him physically and
mentally feeble. In short, he was as close one can come
to literally having no life away from his computer.
Singer's was not a pursuit of wealth. Nor power. Nor even
infamy. According to Freedman and Mann, Singer sought a
personal Valhalla he simply branded "access."
The content of the compromised network held no value to
him -- he was playing an endless game of access leapfrog,
using one system as a springboard to the next. The inconvenience
to system administrators along the way was a pleasurable
perk. But in spite of his hacking success, Singer was not
a skilled hacker. Yes, he reportedly gained access to more
systems than anyone else. (Ever.) And yes, he pushed his
way past immeasurable security systems by sheer determination.
But skilled? Not this 'tard. When one measures skill by
grace and not by the scorecard, Singer becomes a successful
hacker in only so much as his patience was immeasurable.
His modus was not ground-breaking. His wit not unmatchable.
His technique was common, even simple and age-old: methodically
search for those locks left unlocked due to oversight, laziness
or apathy. Eventually -- eventually -- you will find the way
Problem is -- eventually is slow. And slow, mechanical grunt
work does not generally make for a zippy book. At Large
succeeds nonetheless. Freedman and Mann have not written
for the hacking community, yet they're also not trying to
spin this rather dry topic into beach blanket reading. They
have neither romanticized Singer's exploits nor portrayed
the heat as heroes. This is a cautionary tale told with
flair. Every system, they posit, is subject to compromise.
And we can prove it by example. Now, deal with it.
The readability of the book is a credit to the authors'
ability to offer sufficient technical explanations without
belaboring the story. That's a tough trick. For instance:
"Wherever [he] turned, [Singer] would be pinging for
his attention." To "ping" is to send a query
across the Internet and locate a user. (It is named for
a submarine's sonar "ping.") There was no footnote
accompanying "ping," as none was necessary -- -- even
without an explicit explanation, the point was made. Singer
was a pest.
Another gem: "Reformatting a drive was a digital version
of breaking into someone's home, then writing on the walls
and defecating on the floors." Here, they give the
reader a perfect metaphor, one which carries enough imagery
for the uninitiated, yet rings true to those whole already
understand the behavior.
Freedman and Mann really excel when
they examine the larger issues. In perhaps their most inpired
passage, they make note: "[C]omputer networks are a combination
of libertarian dreamworld (every byte privatized, every
second of computer-processing time allocated and paid for)
and Orwellian nightmare (every byte subject to recording,
every second of computer-processing time held accountable)."
They describe this conflict as raging in the heart of professional
system administrators everywhere. To protect one's network
with absolutely infallibility, one must disconnect the means
of legit access, which ultimately renders the system useless.
Yet to continue with open a policy of unrestricted (or,
more realistically, a system of carefully monitored liberties)
leaves a system too vulnerable to function. And there you
have the subtext.
For everyone who dismisses computer privacy in the same
family of non-thoughts as cancer and plane crashes, At Large
proves a startling eye-opener. At its best, it accurately
conveys the illogic and scattershot targeting employed by
most hackers -- they generally have no covert motives, no
political agendas -- and the authors squarely place the onus
on the system administrators who are too lazy, ambivalent
or ignorant to fully protect their networks. Ineptitude
and inflexibility on the part of human system administrators
has always been the most useful means of gaining covert
access to even the most inhuman of networks.
In more grandiose terms, At Large is also the spiritual
tale of a young man trying to transcend the boundaries put
upon him in the physical world. His quest to become part
of the greater whole is common. Unfortunately, his uncommon
actions in this common quest had greater consequences.