I have long been fascinated by computer hackers, and have a large library of books about hacking. When I got my hands on a pre-release review copy of Mafiaboy: A Portrait of the Hacker as a Young Man, I was pretty excited about another hacker biography.
Back when I began monkeying with computers as a junior high school student in 1972, one of the first things I discovered is that computer hacking is a mixture of technical and social engineering skills. The hackers I’ve known and admired were old school (similar to what’s known today as “white hat”). We never damaged anything or profited from our escapades. We learned a lot and played a lot of practical jokes on each other, but we didn’t do the kind of things mafiaboy did to land himself in jail.
For those unfamiliar with his story, Michael Calce (a.k.a. “mafiaboy”) hit the news when he used DOS (denial of service) attacks to bring down the websites of CNN, Dell, eBay, E*Trade, Yahoo!, and Amazon. He was variously reported as a 15-year-old “script kiddie” with no real technical skills and as a talented and dangerous computer hacker. I expected this story to explain what he did and how he did it.
I was disappointed.
Calce was not a traditional old-school hacker with a love of technology, digging for knowledge to use the equipment better. Nor was he an example of today’s malicious profiteer, extorting site owners and stealing private data for profit. He was a teenager whose quest for knowledge was focused entirely on bullying other so-called hackers online. His goal was to take control of huge networks of other people’s computers and use them as tools to take over chat rooms and kick other kids out.
If you’re interested in the psychology of a kid who made news worldwide for the damage he caused, you’ll probably enjoy this book. It’s factual and unapologetic. He reiterates how stupid he was and how much trouble his big mouth and braggadocio got him into, and it shows the ramifications of his actions.
If you want to know the details of what he did, how he did it, and what system administrators and software engineers have done to prevent others from doing it, this is not your kind of book. There’s little detail, and despite his claims of programming skill, he really seems to understand very little of what was going on behind the scenes.
Although he hired an experienced co-author to do most of the writing, it still doesn’t have the professional feel I expect from Lyons Press. As an example, the book opens with Calce’s arrest. He describes the police and FBI coming to his house to pick him up, and how his brother was reprimanded for speaking Italian to Calce. Then the police start conversing in French. Huh? Because the FBI was involved, I assumed the book was taking place in the U.S. Calce never bothered to include the minor detail that this was all happening in Canada.
Despite the label on the cover saying “Winner of the Arthur Ellis Award: Nonfiction Book of the Year,” the book is lacking as a piece of nonfiction. There’s no index. The “Mafiaboy Guide to Protecting Yourself Online” could have come from any of a thousand security websites (or my own writing from decades ago, for that matter), and shows no personal insights from the talented and experienced hacker he claims to be. His stories of other hackers are lifted from books and TV shows, not from his own interviews, so no new information is presented. The victims of his attacks aren’t interviewed.
I will be keeping the book with my other computer hacker books, but it’s more a tale of teenage angst and suffering (Look what they did to me! I couldn’t talk to my best friend for three years!) than a hacker book.
NOTE: This review is based on an advance copy, and there may be changes before its scheduled release on August 2, 2011.