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Under The Microscope

CYBERPUNK, by Katie Hafner and John Markoff. Corgi; May 1993; 480pp; $16.95

People wanting a readable, non-technical account of some of the things the misguided or criminal can do using the phone lines or a computer network should consider taking a look at Cyberpunk. It covers three widely-reported cases of "hacking" in a way that gives a good impression of what was actually going on.

A practical joke that went disastrously wrong, a bunch of hackers selling unimportant data to the USSR, and an unpleasant, greedy phone-phreak-turned-hacker are of some interest in themselves, but they also illustrate in a more general way both the kinds of opportunities for mayhem that data nets can provide and the kinds of action that make life more difficult for hackers.

It's disappointing, in fact, that the authors mostly restrict themselves to narrating the action. More thoughtful analysis would have been very worthwhile -- the authors do seem to have thought about some of the issues, but they don't say much. Cyberpunk did have a couple of irritating features. It's divided into three sections, which seem to be separately written, and some things are explained several times. Despite the authors' stated intention to explain what drives hackers, it also failed to give much of a feel for the computer culture portrayed, and I got the impression that the authors wanted to emphasise the physical unattractiveness of some of their subjects.

Despite these niggles, the book is overall a good one. With computer networks extending their electronic tendrils ever more rapidly, it won't be long before they touch almost everyone on a regular basis. The specific loopholes exploited by the subjects of Cyberpunk will have been fixed on most systems, but there are always new security holes... Readers should end up with something to think about.

Phil Anderson, NZSM

Phil Anderson is the assistant editor of New Zealand Science Monthly