Reviews

Black Hat: Misfits, Criminals, and Scammers in the Internet Age by John Biggs

Thomas Scott McKenzie

It's partly a technical book, partly a detective novel, and partly a sociological treatise.


Black Hat

Publisher: Apress
Length: 158
Subtitle: Misfits, Criminals, and Scammers in the Internet Age
Price: $19.99
Author: John Biggs
US publication date: 2004-06
Amazon

Bookstore shelves are crammed with computer books with instructions on running a virus check, installing a firewall, and protecting personal data. Black Hat: Misfits, Criminals, and Scammers in the Internet Age by John Biggs stands apart from the dummies books and that ilk by the sociological examinations of the internet's villains. For example, instead of just talking about spam filters, this book interviews some of spam world kingpins. And instead of merely discussing viruses, Biggs actually tracks down worm-writers in Eastern Europe to learn their motives. Black Hat is partly a technical book, partly a detective novel, and partly a sociological treatise.

One of the opening chapters covers the hot button issue of email spam. We are introduced to Alan Ralsky, the self-described King of Spam. He runs companies called Creative Marketing Zone Inc., RXPoint.com, Additional Benefits, MPI Global, and others but all of these companies are considered fronts for spam enterprises. He brags about his servers and system that disgorge over 650,000 emails each hour from his Michigan home. Ralsky's activities are so infamous that he has become the target of motivated anti-spam movements, including having his personal information posted on the internet, yet he remains defiant and maintains that he is doing nothing wrong. In many ways, Ralsky's arguments make sense. But the cost of spam is quickly becoming a burden. Black Hat points out that "in July 2003, a spam catcher at MasterCard International tagged half of the company's 800,000 inbound emails as spam. Back office folks, the CTOs and system administrators who keep email flowing, estimate they spent $49 per user in 2003 to help stop the flow." Biggs is pessimistic about winning the war on spam, but he does point out some ways to protect against the deluge; to hopefully keep it at a trickle. Perhaps the most interesting part of the spam discussion is the detailed dissection of the mess of characters and HTML code that accompany spam messages and how these characteristics are manipulated to confuse spam filters.

One of the more interesting critters brought to the light in Black Hat is a 16-year-old worm writer who calls himself Second Part to Hell. He lives in Murau, a city in the Alps in Austria and blasts White Zombie, Nirvana, and Sepultura while creating his worms. Not content to just create worms and viruses, he's actually concocted an entire system called the BatchWormGenerator. Second Part to Hell is talented, dedicated, and skilled:

His viruses are compact and, in a way, beautiful. He's proud of the things he adds into each of his programs, including a method that converts all of the recognizable text in his viruses into gibberish to fool antivirus programs. To understand how difficult and complex his programs are, imagine trying to lift yourself off the ground by your own heels. In computing terms, he does this with almost every virus he creates.

Second Part to Hell is part of a cabal of whiz kids that are all in high school or college, know up to five computer languages, and can outhack most corporate programmers who populate thousands of cubicles in the Dulles Technology Corridor or Silicon Valley. Second Part to Hell and his colleagues like to think they are not a threat. They personally have not used their worms to deliver any malicious payload. However, by spreading around their worms and making them available to anyone, they are providing the mechanisms for wreaking havoc. Like a corner office, Wharton-trained executive at Smith and Wesson, Second Part to Hell says that he isn't hurting anyone and that he can't control how his creations are used. Black Hat traces some of Second Part to Hell's predecessors, detailing viruses and worms from the early days in 1988 up to recent catastrophes like the Slammer virus that shut down airline reservation systems and even clogging the lines of communication used by 911 officers. Another detailed dissection of computer viruses, complete with the lines of code, is also included as well as instructions for protecting computer health.

Of particular interest to pop culture fanatics is a detailed examination of piracy, both in the form of illegal CDs of music and movies as well as file-sharing "copies." This is one of the discussions in which Black Hat distinguishes itself from typical how-to computer books in that it examines the social aspects of these technical trends. Beginning by describing the author's experience at a large scale, open-air market for pirated goods in Poland, the author points out that all of the hype about file sharing and teenagers is simply hyperbole spewed forth by an outdated entertainment industry. "Record companies can sue as many 12-year-olds as they want. Microsoft can sic their lawyers on entire nations. The movie industry can create as many feel-good commercials as it deems necessary, but the equation will always be the same: piracy cannot be stopped." The reason piracy cannot be stopped, Biggs argues, is that the industry is archaic and fears change. CDs cost almost $20 and a night at the movies for a family of four can approach one hundred dollars. The industry that says college kids in a dorm-room downloading music is going to be their death knell, but weren't they also the same ones who said VCRs would ruin the movie industry? And weren't they the ones who said that kids taping songs off the radio would harm record sales? Keep going back in time and you'll keep hearing more "the sky is falling" predictions from the entertainment industry. Instead of adapting, the industry files lawsuits against high school kids; at the date of publication, the Recording Industry Association of America had filed 382 lawsuits and received 220 settlements of about $3,000 each. That's a total of $660,000 for the industry. Compare that with the initial launch of Apple's iTunes. The industry as a whole scoffed at Apple's plans and said there was no market for such a service. And then iTunes sold one million songs online in its first week of operation. At 99 cents per song, that amounts to $990,000 of almost pure profit. How much was spent on lawyers for all those legal proceedings? How long did it take to bring in the six hundred grand collected from individuals? And then a novel idea, with good technology behind it, brings in three hundred thousand dollars more in one single week. Contrary to the industry's wailings, the public is willing to pay when the service is good and affordable.

Black Hat finishes with examinations of hacking (including a treatment of one of the first hackers Lord Digital) and chapters explaining tips on how to protect your computer against the dark side of the internet. A glossary is also included for neophytes. Black Hat is an interesting examination of the underbelly of the information superhighway, but it should be stated that this is not a book for system administrators. There are many, many more detailed and more technically sophisticated books available. However, this book is unique in the breadth of topics it covers and in its examinations of the social and personal aspects of these very technical discussions. Other books tell you how to avoid internet scams, but they won't introduce you to Steve Bedrosian who makes a living selling "dehydrated water" and "carbon-free diamonds." Other books will tell you how to install firewalls and spam filters, but they won't introduce you to Second Part to Hell and Alan Ralsky. Black Hat is distinguished by these introductions, the interviews with internet pirates, and the treatment of the social conditions that create them.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image