A friend recently asked me if I could recommend some reading about hacking and security culture. I gave a couple of quick answers, but it inspired me to write a blog post in case anyone else is looking for similar content. Unless otherwise noted, I’ve read all of these books/resources and can recommend them.
Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World is a well-researched deep dive into one of the original and most significant hacking groups. Members of the cDc have been involved in many of the early fundamental techniques and tools in the world of hacking. Even now, decades later, they continue to influence the fields of hacking and cybersecurity, through activities like member Beto O’Rourke’s influences in politics, major roles in the cybersecurity industry, and other positions. They’ve had members testify before Congress, involved in running DARPA, and the development of privacy technology Tor. There’s also a great companion talk to go with the book.
Breaking and Entering: The Extraordinary Story of a Hacker Called “Alien” covers a story of a hacker who started her foray into exploring the restricted during her time at MIT. The hacking done there was more akin to what we might call urban exploration today, but was called hacking at the time. The inquisitiveness of wanting to explore what was “verboten” is what has lead to generations of great hacks we’ve seen since. Alien takes her interest in the forbidden and brings it to the digital age through her computer exploits and develops into one of the most talented hacking careers. Her skills aren’t limited to the keyboard, however, and she takes things into her own hands and starts her own business.
Love him or hate him, Kevin Mitnick is both one of the best known hackers of all time as well as a significant influence in the hacking and phone phreaking scenes of the 1990s. Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker documents the times he was on the run from federal authorities while labeled as the “world’s most dangerous hacker.” While the book is not very technical at all, it describes some great social engineering exploits and is an enjoyable read to get to understand the actions involved in escaping the Feds. Even though they’re older books, I also enjoy Mitnick’s The Art of Deception: Controlling the Human Element of Security and The Art of Intrusion: The Real Stories Behind the Exploits of Hackers, Intruders and Deceivers.
The Cuckoo’s Egg goes back to an era of timesharing on mainframe computer systems. Astronomer turned systems administrator turned author Cliff Stoll details how an accounting error turned into a hunt for a hacker that has compromised their timesharing system at Lawrence Berkeley Labs. It’s not just some bored student or phreaker messing with their system – it turns into a major intelligence and criminal investigation, leading to a major bust. Oh, and that accounting error? It was over 75 cents. This may well be one of the earliest hacking investigations to be documented and publicized in this way. It’s a hybrid of detective story and hacking story, and is just the right length to tell the story.
Steven Levy’s Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government – Saving Privacy in the Digital Age describes the first Crypto Wars, in the mid 1990s. It discusses the issues and implications of access to cryptography, why the government wants to control access to cryptography (to control information) and how the issues played out. This may be one of the most timely books in this list given the issues at play with the US legislature, the laws recently passed in Australia, and other issues at hand. Paraphrasing George Santayana, “Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes.”
Also by Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution is a great profile of the original hackers, even before the times of cybersecurity. The book covers the early “hackers” of computers like Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, and Richard Stallman and the transition from the mainframe computing world to the world of computers in every home. Today we’ve transitioned to computers in every pocket, but the evolution was begun by these early computer enthusiasts. Without their efforts (and their sometimes bending the rules), we wouldn’t have the hacking scene we do today. Steven Levy covers the history in depth and with a great amount of detail.
Fiction (Culturally Influencing)
William Gibson, author of Neuromancer, the first book in the Sprawl trilogy, is the father of the term “cyberspace”, giving us “cybersecurity”. I’m not sure whether to thank him or hate him for the term “cybersecurity”, but I do know that this book is one of the defining books of the “cyber” culture, including modern hackers, cyberpunks, and a large part of the culture surrounding the realm of hacking. It’s likely that this book (and series) has influenced an entire generation of science fiction writers and the surrounding culture. The book is a literary masterpiece in its own right, winning both a Philip K. Dick Award and a Hugo Award. The other two books in the Sprawl trilogy are Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. This is, without a doubt, my favorite book trilogy and one of my favorite books of all time.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson is set in the Metaverse and heavily features virtual reality being used as a substitute for, well, reality. In many ways, it’s a 21st century take on Neuromancer but also brings into play a blend of old and new culture and truly makes you think about where society is headed. This book managed to make Time’s list of 100 best English-language novels and is also one of my top 10 books. Neal Stephenson is an imaginative author with an eye for the future that makes you think. His book Cryptonomicon is another of my favorites.
Digital Fortress by Dan Brown (author of The Da Vinci Code) is an all-too-real fictional account of a secret NSA supercomputer capable of breaking any encryption system. With malware introduced into the computer, the system is beginning to break down and they must uncover the story of what has happened and how. With the author of the code infecting the machine dead, the members of the NSA cryptography team must work to figure out what’s behind the malware and the code it contained. This novel is deeply engrossing – the first time I read it, I ended up missing a whole night of sleep reading it. (I can’t recommend this approach, especially if you have to go to work the next day.)
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is a modern day take on Orwell’s 1984, updated for the technologies and organizations of today. Quite frankly, it’s so realistic to me that it’s deeply unsettling – in the uncanny valley of government surveillance. It’s a reminder that we have to be careful of the way we treat our privacy, our rights, and the power of our government. Doctorow has a scary outlook on life, but it’s an important read for anyone concerned about the state of our society. Though written as a “young adult” novel, I found it an engaging and interesting read and thought provoking. In fact, I’ve read it at least twice, along with Homeland. If you’re more the novella type, I can strongly recommend Overclocked, though the story sysadmins is a bit of a horror story. (Though maybe you like that sort of thing!)
Though I can’t recommend them as “high quality literature”, there are a few books I enjoy reading in the vein of hacking. These include:
- Geek Mafia by Rick Dakan
- Geek Mafia: Mile Zero by Rick Dakan
- Zero Day: A Jeff Aiken Novel by Mark Russinovich
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