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Fatal System Error

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I work in the tech industry and have an interest in cybercrime, especially tales from the front lines. I put some of that down to Cliff Stoll’s excellent account — still the best book I’ve read on the subject.

This professed to detail the story of the hunt for shadowy crime lords who use the web for their nefarious schemes, whether it be spam email, viruses, blackmail, identity or corporate theft and everything else besides (there’s some overlap with Krebs’ book).

What you actually get is a pretty turgid account of two people; one the founder of a company that defends websites against attack, the other a British detective trying to arrest the hackers identified as performing the attacks.

What it shows is the lack of engagement from law enforcement, the impotency of chasing criminals across multiple jurisdictions — especially those that are willing to turn a blind eye to such activities — and just how hard it is to bring the perpetrators to justice.

There’s very little technical information about what was done, from the attack angle, the defense or how they tracked the attackers down. It also focuses heavily on Russia and some of the former Eastern Bloc states — briefly mentioning China. Granted, they have been identified as a large source and the book was published in 2010, so is somewhat out of date.

A book simply isn’t the right medium for such a fast-moving topic, unless you’re detailing a specific attack, and then it needs to be a lot more detailed. This covers little ground, was out of date by the time it was printed and hasn’t aged too well — except to highlight the ongoing difficulties.

It’s not a particularly long book either. The quoted page count (304) includes all of the references and the index. The content only runs 251. That leaves the final chapter — where the author attempts some sort of treatise on what must be done to defend the web — as a rush of ideas that lack any evidence to support them.

While it would likely only appeal to those in the industry in the first place, this is a tough sell even to them. Worth skipping.

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This was a copy of the book

Reviewed: 25th April 2018