There are many threats coming from the internet, but in this book, Misha Glenny, a well-respected journalist, examines mainly cybercrime, (dominantly theft of financial details and cloning of credit card data for financial profit), the one that tends to affect mostly individuals, rather than organizations, although there is also a brief discussion of cyber espionage, particularly attacks originating from nation states, designed to paralyze, or even destroy, an opponent's essential infrastructure. The world of hackers and the criminal skimmers, is a mixture of geeks (computer experts, usually with some sort of personality disorder) who are not primarily interested in money, more in showing off their skills and establishing their reputation, and hardened criminals, whose interest is definitely cash. Opportunities for cybercrime arose from the massive lapses in security that existed in the early days of the internet and the web, and although most of these have now been closed, many institutions are still vulnerable. Thus banks still insist that chip-and-pin cards are impregnable, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Most of the book is an analysis of the most successful of the hacker/scammer sites, DarkMarket, whose contributors came from a wide range of countries, and how it was eventually brought down by the co-operative efforts of law enforcement agencies in many countries, including America, Germany, Turkey and the UK.
Much of the information comes from interviews with law enforcements officers and the hackers themselves, and this raises a fundamental problem, not unlike the one facing the reader of political memoirs. How much should we believe, when all parties want to show themselves in the best light? This is very relevant, because there was intense rivalry, and even destructive interference, between the American Secret Service and the FBI; and on the hacker's side, the players all have inflated opinions of their `achievements', and the archives of DarkMarket (unlike those of some other major hacker sites) are not available to cross check. Glenny openly acknowledges this as a major source of concern in establishing the truth.
Leaving this problem aside, how successful is Glenny in getting the story across? Much of the ground has been covered in a recent book by Kevin Poulsen, himself a former hacker, but Glenny's is a less technical account and so it can be presented in a more exciting way, which he does. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, in principle it should be accessible to more people, but on the other hand, over simplification can lead to occasional technical errors being made, as Glenny has done, although they will not worry most readers. The resulting narrative is fast moving and gets across the tense, paranoid world of hackers, where anyone could be a law enforcement 'mole' and nobody can really be trusted, and the sometimes corrupt relationships between hackers and politicians. The result reads more like a crime thriller than a factual account. Thus, descriptions of the thoughts and feelings of the hackers in particular must be largely speculation and he makes little attempt to distinguish between this and facts. I also felt there was not a strong enough coherent thread running through the text; stories are started, but then sometimes abruptly ended, and not always continued later.
Cybercrime is an intrinsically very interesting subject that impacts all our lives to an ever-increasing extent, and maybe this book will alert some readers to be more careful about the dangers of the web, but I am sure there is another book waiting to be written on the subject, that can steer a better line between technicalities and the human elements.