How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground
By Kevin Poulsen
(Broadway Books, Paperback, 9780307588692, 288pp.)
Publication Date: February 7, 2012
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Former hacker Kevin Poulsen has, over the past decade, built a reputation as one of the top investigative reporters on the cybercrime beat. In Kingpin, he pours his unmatched access and expertise into book form for the first time, delivering a gripping cat-and-mouse narrative—and an unprecedented view into the twenty-first century’s signature form of organized crime.
The word spread through the hacking underground like some unstoppable new virus: Someone—some brilliant, audacious crook—had just staged a hostile takeover of an online criminal network that siphoned billions of dollars from the US economy.
The FBI rushed to launch an ambitious undercover operation aimed at tracking down this new kingpin; other agencies around the world deployed dozens of moles and double agents. Together, the cybercops lured numerous unsuspecting hackers into their clutches. . . . Yet at every turn, their main quarry displayed an uncanny ability to sniff out their snitches and see through their plots.
The culprit they sought was the most unlikely of criminals: a brilliant programmer with a hippie ethic and a supervillain’s double identity. As prominent “white-hat” hacker Max “Vision” Butler, he was a celebrity throughout the programming world, even serving as a consultant to the FBI. But as the black-hat “Iceman,” he found in the world of data theft an irresistible opportunity to test his outsized abilities. He infiltrated thousands of computers around the country, sucking down millions of credit card numbers at will. He effortlessly hacked his fellow hackers, stealing their ill-gotten gains from under their noses. Together with a smooth-talking con artist, he ran a massive real-world crime ring.
And for years, he did it all with seeming impunity, even as countless rivals ran afoul of police.
Yet as he watched the fraudsters around him squabble, their ranks riddled with infiltrators, their methods inefficient, he began to see in their dysfunction the ultimate challenge: He would stage his coup and fix what was broken, run things as they should be run—even if it meant painting a bull’s-eye on his forehead.
Through the story of this criminal’s remarkable rise, and of law enforcement’s quest to track him down, Kingpin lays bare the workings of a silent crime wave still affecting millions of Americans. In these pages, we are ushered into vast online-fraud supermarkets stocked with credit card numbers, counterfeit checks, hacked bank accounts, dead drops, and fake passports. We learn the workings of the numerous hacks—browser exploits, phishing attacks, Trojan horses, and much more—these fraudsters use to ply their trade, and trace the complex routes by which they turn stolen data into millions of dollars. And thanks to Poulsen’s remarkable access to both cops and criminals, we step inside the quiet, desperate arms race that law enforcement continues to fight with these scammers today.
Ultimately, Kingpin is a journey into an underworld of startling scope and power, one in which ordinary American teenagers work hand in hand with murderous Russian mobsters and where a simple Wi-Fi connection can unleash a torrent of gold worth millions.
KEVIN POULSEN is a senior editor at Wired.com and a contributor to Wired magazine. He oversees cybercrime, privacy, and political coverage for Wired.com and edits the award-winning Threat Level blog (wired.com/threatlevel), which he founded in 2005.
"[A] brisk and entertaining tale."--The New York Times
"Even though he has done jail time for his cyber crimes and credit card hacking, it’s hard not to like Max "Max Vision" Butler.... The capers of this misfit genius, and the FBI’s attempts to infiltrate credit card hacking rings, combine to make this a fast, fun read."--Newark Star-Ledger
“Hello, Hollywood, Kevin Poulsen has a tale for you. Deftly told.”—San Francisco Chronicle
"What will make this book endure is Poulsen's elegant elucidation of how the hacking world evolved from its pimply, ideological beginnings into a global criminal enterprise"--Atlantic.com
“Poulsen renders the hacker world with such virtual reality that readers will have difficulty logging off until the very end.”—Publishers Weekly
“The lead figures of KINGPIN are brilliant, crooked geeks and the sleazy women who love to help them steal. Their mortal enemies are a cyber-savvy swarm of undercover cops. Kevin Poulsen gets so close to these paranoid, shadowy people that you can smell the sweat on the keyboards and hear the handcuffs clack shut. No other book can match this intimate, expert portrait of a truly modern criminal underworld.”--Bruce Sterling, Hugo Award-winning novelist and futurist
“An exciting crime thriller, a compelling psychological study, and one of the most accurate stories of hacker culture that I’ve ever read…Poulsen deftly explains the technology behind these ultramodern computer crimes and shows how they’re committed.”--Annalee Newitz, Editor in Chief of io9.com
“With the tense drama and future shock of a William Gibson novel, Kevin Poulsen spins a scary-true tale of the dark-side hacker underground and its most adept sorcerer.”--Steven Levy, author of Hackers and Crypto
"The most thorough portrait to date of a top modern U.S. cyber criminal and an engaging tale of cops against robbers against other robbers. No one writes with more authority than Kevin Poulsen about how hackers actually go about their business."--Joseph Menn, author of All the Rave and Fatal System Error
“Building on the best of the police procedural tradition, Kevin Poulsen lays out in clear language the technologies and methods employed by the criminals and crime fighters alike, all the while crafting a sympathetic character study of the conflicted gray hat, Max Vision, at the heart of it all.”--Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard professor and author of The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It
“A superb, insider tour of the dark Internet that lies below "the whitewashed, commercialized" world of the Web. Kevin Poulsen is one of the very few people who understands the territory: the scammers, the scammers of the scammers, and the law enforcement officers trying to catch them. KINGPIN describes a parallel business world, including "the underground's first hostile takeover," where characters who call themselves names like DarkCyd and Matrix and Ghost23 battle for control of digital scams. It is a fascinating, scary ride.”--Ellen Ullman, author of Close to the Machine and The Bug