Ever since the invention of the telephone, people have been interacting in the electronic virtual reality created by the network of telephone lines. Just as in physical society, this space has evolved its own rules, customs, and laws; and from the beginning, people have committed crimes there. Sterling devotes the first part of the book to the telephone system, for two reasons. First, the network is the means by which hackers gain unauthorized access to remote computers. Second, he argues that the basis for the legal crackdown on hackers is political. The real reason is power: control of the telephone system.
Each of the other parts of the book is devoted to the major players in the hacker controversy. The “digital underground” includes “phone phreaks” (who intentionally steal phone service), hackers (who intentionally break into remote computer systems, not necessarily with evil intent), and users of electronic bulletin boards. A few people in law enforcement specialize in computer crime, at the federal, state, and local levels. Finally, a highly publicized group of civil libertarians (the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF) sprang up to combat over-zealous law enforcement.
THE HACKER CRACKDOWN is unfocused until it arrives at the central event which provided the title: sweeping, nationwide computer seizures in 1990, culminating in the trial of hacker Knight Lightening. Sterling is at his best here, talking with colorful figures such as computer cop Gail Thackeray and Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corporation and the EFF. The trial is described in wicked detail, including the full text of an insignificant purloined telephone company document — the pretext for the arrest — and the incredible details of how it became valued at nearly $80,000. The book is uneven, but Sterling knows his way around, and has an easy way with unfamiliar people and technology.