hankrules2011

Book reviews, health, hockey, publishing, music

A Review of The Watchman

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 29, 2015

The Watchman: The Twisted Life and Crimes of Serial Hacker Kevin PoulsenThe Watchman: The Twisted Life and Crimes of Serial Hacker Kevin Poulsen by Jonathan Littman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve long heard about Kevin Poulsen, but didn’t know as much about him as I did about another early hacker, Kevin Mitnick, and I wanted to learn more, so this book was great. And it just so happened that it was by one of my favorite technology nonfiction authors, Jonathan Littman, who also wrote a book on Mitnick that is also quite good. Mitnick may be more infamous, but Poulsen was possibly better. It’s debatable, but regardless, Poulsen was one of the early old school hackers to take complete control of the phone system and change the way America and law enforcement looked at hackers.

Poulsen started out, like so many of the early ones, phone phreaking in his early teens and graduated into hacking. He early on learned the innards of Pac Bell, first by dumpster diving, then by social engineering, then by phreaking. By his late teens, he probably knew more about the phone system than any non-phone employee in the world, and more than many phone employees themselves. Unfortunately, he of course, got into legal trouble and had to get a “real” job, so ironically, he got a job with SRI, a major defense contractor, where he got a security clearance and worked with top secret military information. Also, ironically, his young boss was another (former) phreaker who started to encourage Kevin to resume phreaking and hacking and together they started engaging in criminal activity, going to Pac Bell switching centers and picking locks and breaking in, stealing manuals, passwords, souvenirs, phones, accessories, switches, and everything else. Kevin eventually got COSMOS manuals, which gave him total access to everything in Pac Bell’s systems, so that he could create new phone lines, new switches, could wiretap anyone he wanted from anywhere, could place calls from dozens or hundreds of untraceable locations, etc. He broken into TRW to scam credit reports, the DVM, the FBI, Pac Bell Security, etc. His buddy Ron, who’d already been busted for hacking/phreaking, grudgingly helped him at times. However, he started spending so much time at night out doing criminal activity that he was neglecting his really important defense job, that they fired him. However, he landed at Sun Microsystems, which would have been really cool if he could have stayed there. Except he got arrested. And released on bail. And went from Northern California to L.A. There, he and Ron met a strange so-called hacker named Eric Heinz, among many other names (Justin Peterson was another). He figures prominently in the Mitnick book. He was an older hacker who looked and acted like a celebrity rocker, hanging out in Hollywood clubs, driving a Porsche, having sex with different girls, usually strippers, every night, recording the acts, usually bondage, and he was a violent criminal – who also knew how to hack, to a certain degree. He wasn’t as good as Kevin, but he wanted to learn and he was eager to help Kevin, so they formed an uneasy partnership and off they went breaking into Pac Bell switches at night. By this point, Kevin was so brazen that he made himself Pac Bell IDs, uniforms, stole a Pac Bell van, drove to their headquarters in LA, walked in, knowing he was wanted, signed himself in, walked to the Security department after hours, broke in, and made copies of all of the memos and documents about him and his partners, hundreds of pages, and walked back out. When the Pac Bell security personnel finally tracked him down with the police and the FBI some time later, they were shocked at finding their own “secure” documents in his place. He also found out who they were wiretapping and wiretapped them back.

Here’s something he did that was a little sleazy. He had always justified his actions as simply innocent old school hacking, harming no one, searching for information and knowledge. However, at some point, he became aware of a group of 50 dead phone lines and voicemail boxes attached to LA escort Yellow Page ads. He went into COSMOS, snagged all the lines for himself, making them untraceable, set up the mailboxes, found a pimp/partner who had the girls, set up an escort ring, and became an digital pimp. He never saw the girls or the pimp. He just liked the challenge and I guess he made a few bucks from it too. However, what he’s most famous for is fixing, not once, but twice two radio station call in competitions with the DJ, Rick Dees, where they were giving away a $50,000 Porsche. He and Ron rented a seedy office, got eight phones, set up eight phone lines attached to the radio station, ran them into his phones, and when the three songs were played in order and the phones started ringing, at some point, the callers all got busy signals and Kevin and Ron were the “right” callers and won their cars. They also won other deals, like $10,000 in cash and trips to Hawaii. Another biggie is when Kevin was featured on the TV show, Unsolved Mysteries, at the request of the FBI. While it was being aired, all 30 phone lines to the show went down for the duration of the show while the FBI sat there and fumed. They knew what had happened and who had done it.

Eventually Kevin and Eric had a bit of a falling out and Eric got especially careless. Kevin was cocky and got a little careless himself. Arrest. He was facing two federal indictments in northern and southern California, one of which would have netted him 100+ years in prison, the other of which would have given him 37 years in prison. The headlines were brutal. The charges were insane. Espionage. Breaking into military computers. Military networks. The implication that he had been wiretapping the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco. Not proven. Classified military documents. Well, he has security clearances and that was part of his job. Idiot prosecutors and FBI were too stupid and too eager to send him to prison for life to actually look at what he had actually done or not done. When it was all said and done, most of the charges were dropped, virtually all of the serious charges, and he served about five years in prison. This was in the early 1990s, even though his hacking career began back in the very early 1980s. I don’t know what happened to him between when he got out of prison and now, but I do know that now he’s a respected security “expert” and journalist. He’s an editor for Wired Magazine and recently wrote a book called Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground, which I read just a month or two ago. It was well written and quite interesting. So obviously, he’s come a long way and more power to him. He had a lot of growing and maturing to do and he seriously had to pay his debt to society. It appears he has.

For me, this book is probably worthy of five stars, but I’m not certain if it’s outstanding enough to actually merit five stars. It’s a tough call. It’s at least a four star book. It’s interesting, well written, detailed, tension filled, easy to understand (for the most part), and well documented. And I don’t really know how it could have been improved. So to be honest, even though I’m not certain it’s a five star book, I don’t see how I can’t give it five stars. I just don’t see how it could have been better. It was an excellent book. So, five stars and recommended if you like to read histories of old school hackers and hacking.

View all my reviews

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