Hackers aren't the new Mafia - they aren't trustworthy enough

Misha Glenny's DarkMarket shows there is no hacker 'community' - they live in suspicion of each other

Column LAST UPDATED AT 07:56 ON Fri 20 Jul 2012
Bywater

THE AUTHOR and journalist Misha Glenny has been a slightly taxing case for those who like to pigeonhole their authors. He's written about the Balkans (revealing little to counteract their historical image as a collection of ill-tempered, brutal, tribalist hellholes), then, in McMafia, about the globalisation of the world in the interests of corporatism.

Now he's turned his wary and confiding eye on (semi-)organised computer crime, in DarkMarket: How Hackers Became the New Mafia.

The title is slightly overwrought. You can see, a bit too clearly, the hand of a delighted ('Yes! Mafia! That'll pull in the readers!') sales executive.

Computer hackers aren't the Mafia. There aren't enough of them. They don't pose as respectable businessmen. They have fingers in very few pies. And they don't kill each other. Actually, they seldom come out of their bedrooms (for once, the clichés are true) except to drive around in expensive cars and to go to prison.

These are guys with bad skin, reeking trainers, weird hair, a peculiar argot of their own. They live online and talk only to each other, in code.

What they do is mostly small-time ID, credit card and bank fraud. You'd think from the secrecy, the endless web of referrals and PsyOps social engineering - this isn't stuff you'd get to via Google - they would at least be planning to take over the world; but no.

In the last couple of weeks I've been cloned. A pain. All these pin numbers and 16-digit card numbers and CCV numbers and 'Now press SIGN and enter your PIN code when requested' and 'We'll send a replacement card to your home.'  

'But I'm not at home'.

'I'm sorry, sir, district head office in Pasadena sets the procedures for cloned cards. No sir I appreciate that but there is nothing I can do.'

That used to be the thing about human beings. There was always something we could do. Now the computer tells us what we can do, and usually it's nothing. We've grown used to it, even to the extent that the ludicrous Group
4 Security - who want us to call them 'G4S' because that sort of bullshit was well modern in 1988 - think they can blame their computers for their monumental Olympic security cock-up and we'll believe them. They think we'll nod sympathetically and say 'Ah... computers. Yes. No can do, right? Ah well.'

We're in a vicious circle. The reason for all this security and PIN codes and numbers and just-a-couple-of-questions-for-security-purposes and sorry-I-can't-discuss-that-Data-Protection-Act-innit, is the sad truth that in almost all aspects of life there is no general assumption of trust.

Nobody trusts the banks. The banks don't trust us. Credit is no longer a matter of trust but of numbers on a computer.

And nobody trusts anybody. Prove it. Fill in the form. Computer says no. CRB check required. Please bring three forms of ID (all issued by the same computers that are so readily hackable).

It's this lack of trust that is Misha Glenny's consistent theme. In the Balkans, nobody trusts anyone else. Nobody trusts the global corporation (rightly) and the global corporation distrusts its employees, which is why it chops their jobs into brainless, repetitive modules performed from a script, then outsources them.

And the computer hackers are masters of betrayal of trust, and soi-disant masters of the art of trusting each other. Except they are lying. They live in suspicion of each other. You want someone to sell you 'a Whole' - an account number, ID and PIN - you have to pay up front.

They talk of the hacker 'community' but there's less community than in the Mafia. They betray at a touch, like Adrian Lamo betrayed Bradley Manning.

They are real-world losers. They screw the rest of us around no end. Nobody really knows how much they cost the economy each year, and the banks aren't saying, but it's tens of billions.

They operate on message boards called stupid dungeons-and-dragons names like the DarkMarket board that gives the book its title. They are fantasists and sometimes you wonder if Glenny was right to trust their word. In the end, it's quite clear. Smart they may be; devious they are; but personally, they are some of the most inadequate men (they always are men) on the planet.

DarkMarket: How Hackers Became the New Mafia by Misha Glenny, Vintage. ISBN 978 0 09 954655 9 · 

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There are hackers who hack to steal money and there are hackers like Lamo who hack for the sake of letting companies know just how weak their IT security is and passing that info along to them. Adrian's sitiation with Manning was different. Manning brought to Lamo what he had done and Lamo decided to report what he regarded as a serious crime.

Hackers get "eliminated" all the time. Most of them are reduced progressively to a few small tricks which are patched out of existence and they're finally left with nothing to show for their years of "L33T" existence except some patchy coding skills and a fat gut from too many Red Bulls.