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Kevin Poulsen
Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Crown / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-307-58868-5
Publication Date: 02-22-2011
288 Pages ; $25
Date Reviewed: 03-19-2011

Index:  Non-Fiction

In many regards, the 21st century is a disappointment. The International Space Station is more like a military barracks than a luxury hotel and the most interesting human artifacts on the moon are footprints. Robots vacuum the floor, and our cars are resolutely earthbound. Even our computers, arguably the fastest-evolving technology, don't do much more for most of us than word processors did thirty years ago. The web, a true innovation, was quickly transformed into an advertising wasteland that is struggling to measure up to the technology of 1970's-era cable television. "The future" seems to be on hold for most of us — except criminals.

Kevin Poulsen's remarkable 'Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground' is an exciting, lean look the life of Max Butler, a complex and troubled man who helped crime, at least, become decidedly futuristic. Poulsen does much more than give us a true-crime biography; 'Kingpin' is an examination of a culture that could only have been born in the future that is our present.

Of course, every future has its roots in the past, and Poulsen starts his story back in the 1980's, when Max Butler was growing up as the troubled son of a broken mid-western home. Butler was diagnosed early on as being bipolar, and it's a vision that haunts this immersive story. From high-school pranks to college girlfriend woes that land him in jail for the first time, Poulsen draws Butler's portrait against a rapidly-changing technological and cultural background. Readers get a personal version of a very big picture.

'Kingpin' is non-fiction, but it reads very much like a fast-paced crime thriller. Though he has large cast of characters and relatively complicated time-line to deal with, Poulsen brings it all into focus by letting readers live the life of Max Butler, who became known as Max Vision and eventually as Iceman. Within the nascent Internet, Butler forged an identity first as a white hat hacker, helping to identify computer intrusions. But his bipolar personality and early incarcerations distorted his already unsteady judgment. Everything was easy for him — even crime.

Poulsen's biography is a compulsively readable as a history not just of Max Butler, but also of the future arriving on time with regards to criminal enterprises. He charts the use of the first Internet chat rooms as bazaars where stolen credit cards were sold. We see the rollout of technology used to create false identification and credit cards to a growing cadre of criminals who were social networking long before Facebook. These websites grew first in Eastern Europe and then were duplicated in the United States. The story of how Max Butler managed to hack the hackers is thoroughly entertaining.

Poulsen also tracks the efforts of law enforcement officials to keep up with forms of crime that are coming into being right before their eyes. Particularly enjoyable is the story of Keith Mularski, an innovative member of the FBI who forged an online identity as Master Splyntr, supposedly a Polish spam king. Mularski is a good match for Butler — and both make mistakes as they match wits on a frontier that is expanding to this very day.

Poulsen is a smart, skilled writer who manages, against all odds, to write what can only be described as a fast-paced epic. This book has a huge scope, but is astonishingly economical. When explaining complicated technology, Poulsen knows just the right level of detail. When he's focusing on Max Butler, his work is dispassionate and exacting. He does not judge his subject but he does not spare him either. If the future has arrived, it's largely underground — or in your wallet. 'Kingpin' will have you hoping it stays there.

Date Reviewed: 03-19-2011

We like our crime loud and exciting. We like guns, death, car chases, foot chases, boat chases and GPS-enabled tracking through computers. We like it fast-paced and in our faces. Lots of shouting is required, and when that won't work, be bring out the bullhorns. Crime, it seems, may or may not pay, but it had better damn well be pretty cinematic.

Books don't have to be cinematic, and crime need not be either. Crime works better, actually, when it is quiet and relatively boring to watch. You probably will not see a movie anytime soon where the criminals, or those who pursue them, spend most of their time sitting on their keisters in front of computers. This is not visually stimulating. But this is the way that crime happens, and as well, the way it gets solved. Crime doesn't have to shout. The silent crime wave is the one you have to worry about.

Kevin Poulsen is arguably our top journalist with regards to matters of computer security. While he worked at SRI (Stanford Research Institute) in the 1980's, he spent his spare time as Dark Dante, a hacker who engaged in an escalating series of criminal pranks that ended up with his arrest in 1991. The FBI does not love being hacked.

The past is past, and Poulsen now uses his intuitive understanding of computer security to write about the matter and bring what is hidden and incomprehensible to light. He runs the ThreatLevel blog and his new book, 'Kingpin' (Crown Books / Random House ; February 22, 2011 ; $25), is a remarkably well-written true-crime story about his own shadowy counterpart in the world of computer security, a man named Max Butler who worked both sides of the fence.

Poulsen takes a novelistic approach in 'Kingpin,' making use of his extensive interviews with Max Butler to tell a gripping story in prose of a man who was both a White Hat consultant to the FBI and a Black Hat hacker who managed to elude capture by a combination of sophisticated skills and often even just the sort of smarts that told him not to answer the door when the FBI came calling; it turned out that they didn't have a warrant to enter the premises, and as a result, by not answering, he eluded arrest.

The power of 'Kingpin' comes from Poulsen's incredible knowledge of his subject. Because he is so intimately immersed in the world of computer security, on both sides of the question, he can break down the complex and often difficult-to-portray world of crime via computer into scenes that readers who are not so immersed can understand. Poulsen knows how to use the advantages of prose to make his story exciting, though the level of the crimes that Butler was involved is itself quite staggering.

Poulsen also knows the characters on both sides as well. This is a key to making any story work, and Poulsen really gets not just Butler, but the women who hung with him. On the other side, Poulsen writes well from the perspective of law enforcement officers in pursuit of Butler; and here's where prose reveals all of its advantages over film. Poulsen here manages the difficult feat of making a computer database search — and its results — fascinating, even gripping reading. As the words tick away before our eyes, the suspense ratchets up incredibly. The complex concepts that drive the whole computer crime community are becoming simultaneously clear for the reader and the cop on the page, Keith Mularski. As a reading experience, it is utterly compelling and fascinating.

It does help that the story Poulsen is telling is timely and rather staggering in scope. Because it does not require gunshots and chasing and any of the other follies that we're so easily entertained by, we really do not have a handle on just how pervasive this sort of crime is. But what does get reported is not where all the money is. Our press likes to take a big stick and poke at the boogeyman called "The Internet," by which they generally mean some websites. Yes, there are criminal websites, and not just those with criminally bad website design. But the money moves pretty much in silence. The only sound is the sound you just made, typing in the URL that got you here. It's not gunfire. It's the sound of money being moved.

Note: No "cybers" were harmed in the creation of this book review.

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