Parmy Olson, Forbes’ London bureau chief, has just completed a detailed history of Anonymous, Lulzsec and the origins of hacktivism. The book is now available on Amazon.
Olson’s approach? Write a fact-based chronicle detailing the history of hacktivism. The book reads like a cyber Bonnie and Clyde, only this rampage captures global attention. It’s an essential chronicle of hacktivism, shedding light one of the most important and influential subcultures in recent memory. Though there’s a lot about Anonymous and its genesis, the bulk is devoted to the splinter group Lulzsec. What you witness is just how an online movement comes to life, grows and ultimately implodes.
Olson’s account gives readers a lot to like and learn:
- The eccentric social dynamics in the hacking community. Many of us maybe familiar with innocuous cyber communities such as parent networks or advice groups. Hacking groups, by contrast, are a circus with a strange set of social rules and tribal dynamics. Few books capture this environment, but Olson shows it vividly. In one passage, she describes a female’s fate in hacker forums:
Females were a rare sight on image boards and hacking forums; hence the online catchphrase “There are no girls on the Internet,” and why posing as a girl has been a popular tactic for Internet trolls for years. But this didn’t spell an upper hand for genuine females. If they revealed their sex on an image board…they were often met with misogynistic comments…
- The language. One of the great joys of reading Keith Richard’s Life are the Keithisms (e.g., Mick Jagger is “that bitch Brenda”). Like Keith, the dialect of hacking can be amusing. But there is a much less humorous side. Many of the dialogues quoted by Olsen show how Turrets’ Syndrome has become a prerequisite for hacking with IRCs full of homophobic, sexist, and vulgar language.
- How to mint a hacker. Nearly every hacker profiled by Olson has a seriously dysfunctional upbringing. Sabu, for example, grew up with drug dealer parents while one of the UK-based hackers found solace in online communities when transplanted to a barren rock in the Shetlands. Olson very nicely details how wayward souls always seem to find camaraderie online.
- How hacking works. Olson describes the process of hacking with several anecdotes—some technical. For example, Lulzsec hacker “Kayla’s” technical recipe for anonymity is quite interesting:
Kayla was obsessive about hiding her identity, which was why Topiary later called her the ninja. She rotated her passwords almost daily. She claimed to keep all her data on a tiny microSD card, and she kept her operating system on a single USB stick that used to boot up her netbook.
But not everything about hacking will make your eyes roll. For instance, one of the best recommendations is much less technical. Kayla encourages her fellow hackers to use the King’s English in chat rooms. Using the spelling for “color,” for example, gives you away as an American. A safer choice? The more ubiquitous British spelling “colour.”
Unfortunately, Olson follows a pattern many journalists adopt when writing about hacking: describe the process and characters, but stop short of a deeper analysis. Though Olson’s chronicling of events is incredibly useful, connecting the dots on some key issues would be beneficial. Instead, the reader must draw conclusions themselves. It would be nice of some key questions would be answered, such as:
- How can someone identify and stop would-be hackers?
- How can enterprises block an Anonymous attack? The book includes some examples of Anonymous attacks gone awry, but what characteristics made these enterprises successful in blocking hacktivism?
- How did law enforcement succeed? What lessons can be learned?
Despite these issues, Olson has written a book that that is a must read for every security professional, law enforcement official or curious history buff.