Book Review: This Machine Kills Secrets
By: Andy Greenberg
Penguin Group 2012
*Page references have been taken from the electronic iPad version
I’ll admit I haven’t finished the whole book yet but the way the book portrays some events I was involved in differs from my own memory. I wanted to highlight those sections, especially since I am quoted in the book more than once. In general Greenberg has done an excellent job in describing the L0pht and some of the events that took place around it but I take issue with some of the descriptions of places and things, while not inaccurate, Greenberg’s choice of adjectives describes settings in entirely different lights than how I remember them.
“exploring the dark corners of the Internet and charting the back doors in labyrinth alleys” (pg. 203)
I have never understood this type of definition of the early Internet. The mid nineties Internet was small, it was unbelievably tiny compared with today. There were no “labyrinth alleys”, it was not a dark and foreboding place at all, at least not to me. To me it was just the opposite, the Internet helped to shine bright lights on subjects I knew little or nothing about at the time and not just technological topics. In the mid nineties the net was a wealth of information with easy access to experts on any subject. It was free from advertisements or sites just looking for page views. There was nothing really dark or labyrinth about it at all. Describing it as such two decades later makes for great reading though.
“where Mudge was often regarded as the most visible and brilliant member.” (pg 203)
This sentence implies that I, and the rest of the L0pht, thought Mudge was the most brilliant of all of us. Was he the most visible? Absolutely, and that was mostly by design. But was he the most brilliant? No, none of us were. All of us had our own strengths, our own areas of brilliance, including Mudge. The L0pht is the only organization I have ever been involved in that came as close as you can to a true egalitarian structure, a meritocracy, where no one was any more brilliant than any one else. We all had individual strengths, each strength complimented each others weaknesses, a lot of those strengths over lapped, but to imply, as Greenberg has, that Mudge was considered the most brilliant by the other members of the L0pht is woefully inaccurate.
“It was a young male scene drawn from an online bulletin board called the Works, where Zatko had made a name for himself under the pseudonym “Mudge.” (pg. 232)
First the board was known as The Works, a minor nitpick for sure, and it wasn’t 100% male but women were definitely outside the norm. By the time Works Gatherings were occurring everyone pretty much new Mudge anyway. Other boards such as ATDT East and Black Crawling Systems where considered much more ‘elite’ than The Works. The Works was more of a social hangout and info repository while other boards took the technological lead. That is why it fell onto The Works to have these in the flesh get-togethers known as Works Gatherings. This was long before 2600 meetings started happening in Boston, which the Works Gatherings eventually morphed into. But to say that Mudge or anyone made a name for themselves on The Works shows a lack of understanding of the dynamics of the early 90s BBS scene in the 617 area code. Such an understanding would probably take a lot longer to explain than the one sentence Greenberg gives it or the one paragraph I am giving it here.
“In later incarnations, the L0pht would add a PC with web access rigged to the toilet for convenient web browsing.” (pg. 232)
Yes, we had an old terminal in the bathroom. No, it was not rigged to browse the Internet or anything else. If I remember correctly it was either an early POS terminal or something used at an airline, I don’t remember, either way as far as I remember it did not work and you could not surf or do anything else on it. Even if it did the screen was about five inches diagonal and monochrome so who would want to?
“Space Rogue, a former army soldier with close cropped hair, hosted the Mac Whacked Archive, an FTP download site with the worlds largest collection of Apple hacking tools.” (pg 233)
It was the Whacked Mac Archives! I am going to blame this on Greenberg’s editors because I gave him an interview for this book and I know I didn’t give him the wrong name. Come on Andy, a simple Google search by your fact checker should have found this one. And another minor nitpick, it hosted Macintosh tools, not Apple. These days Mac and Apple pretty much mean the same thing but even as late as the mid nineties Macintosh software and Apple software were two completely different things.
“The first night Mudge entered the L0pht, the elite group of hackers were struck by his technical genius…” (pg 233)
Oh please, we were not, or at least I wasn’t. Greenberg is making it sound like some deity had descended from the heavens to walk among us mere mortals. Greenberg paints a very radiant picture here that would make a great movie scene but the reality is much more mundane. Very very few people were ever invited into the L0pht that we didn’t know, either in person or online, beforehand. So when Mudge first entered the L0pht we already knew him, who he was, and what he knew and he already knew, or knew of, us. The first meeting in the L0pht was mostly to discus L0pht logistics, like how much each person payed in rent, were he would sit, when we had meetings, etc… It was not an introduction. Were we impressed by his technical genius? Only so much as it matched our own. Mudge definitely has his own reality distortion field; his own cult of personality and that was definitely something that the L0pht needed at the time.
“But Count Zero was going through a messy divorce that kept him away from the L0pht for months at a time, long enough for Mudge to stake his claim.” (pg 233)
This reads like Mudge engineered some kind of coup to oust Count Zero and take control and that is absolutely NOT what happened. I will admit this episode was messy and handled about as well as a bunch of socially inept computer geeks could handle it but to imply that Mudge came in, kicked out Count Zero and took over is just flat out plain wrong.
“They sold T-shirts, attracted groupies…” (pg 234)
OK, how come no one told me about the groupies? Are there any left?
“At the next Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas, the software megalith’s executives took the L0pht out for an expensive dinner…” (pg 235)
This meeting did actually take place, I don’t remember if it was in conjunction with Black Hat or not, I seem to remember that it was not. Greenberg implies that the whole L0pht was present, we were not. Mudge was there, of course, and I think someone else might have attended but it definitely was not the whole L0pht as Greenberg implies.
“Eventually, several of the L0pht’s members would be hired to work for Microsoft as security consultants.” (pg 235)
As far as I know this is false, none of us were hired by Microsoft directly. I’ll admit I haven’t kept up with everyone’s employment history over the years so it is possible that maybe one of us did a few days or weeks of consulting but as far as I know that was not the case. What did happen sometime in the early 2000s is that Microsoft went on a massive security hiring binge, scooping up all the laid off talent from the security industry implosion after the dot com bubble burst. Many people who worked at @Stake, Guardent, Foundstone, etc ended up at Microsoft, some of them are still there but as far as I know no one from L0pht worked there in any capacity.
“…high level cabinet official travelled alone to clandestine meetings with digital miscreants.” (pg 241)
This sentence annoys me, especially the use of the words clandestine and miscreants. The meeting described here was not clandestine, I am sure it was on Clarke’s official travel schedule, and its not like we met in a dark alley or anything. In fact I’m not entirely sure this meeting happened exactly as it is described. I distinctly remember meeting Clarke with other L0pht members for the first time at John Harvard’s, we both had the chicken pot pie. Now maybe Mudge had an earlier meeting with Clarke as Greenberg described that I wasn’t aware of, I don’t know. Greenberg’s description of this cloak and dagger meeting seems more like a setup for a movie deal than something that actually happened. And what’s with the use of the word miscreant, the definition of which is depraved or villainous, come on.
“For a moment, Clarke huddled with his NSC colleagues in private conversation.” (pg 242)
The meeting Greenberg describes includes the L0pht, Clarke and four NSC guys but that is not how I remember it. At most there were two other guys with Clarke but I am pretty sure there was only one other guy with Clarke. I don’t remember most of the rest of this paragraph either. What I do remember took place in the parking lot outside the L0pht. Clarke was huddling with the other one or two NSC guys who were there, when Mudge standing of to the side with the rest of the L0pht guys yelled over to them, “Hey, we opened the Kimono and showed you ours, what are you guys talking about?” To which Clarke responded that he was very surprised by what he had witnessed at the L0pht and that up until that point he had always assumed that to do what we had been doing would take the support of a nation-state or other large organization, and not seven guys in a rented space in some warehouse. So Greenberg’s version has the same gist to it, just not exactly as how I remember.
“On the way they stopped at the NSA’s Cryptologic Museum and accidently drove past the guards into the agencies secure facility, before timidly backing out.” (pg 242)
If you have ever been to the Cryptological Museum you know that as described this isn’t really possible. The museum is public and open to anyone, however on the drive down we missed the exit off the highway for the museum, so we took the next exit. We found a place to turn around but before we realized it we were passing the NSA guard shack. Imagine a large Ford Econline van with out of state plates, at least four antennas on top and heavily tinted windows. We didn’t know if we should stop or keep going, the guard saluted us, we saluted back and the guard waved us through so we kept on driving. There really wasn’t anything timid about it. Once inside we quickly turned around, left and went back to the Museum. In fact if you ever go to the Cryptological Museum and look in the guest book back to 1998 you will see an entire page that we signed as “L0pht World Tour”
“and ended their trip hanging out with Secret Service agents at Archibald’s, a nearby strip club.” (pg 243)
Umm, no. We did not hang out with Secret Service agents at a strip club or any other type of club. I have no idea where Greenberg got this. It would definitely play well if Greenberg sells the movie rights to this book but it didn’t happen. I remember hanging out in the hotels Irish bar, having one glass of Guinness and then going to bed.
None of the items I have listed here are really all that egregious or detrimental to the story. However, since I was there, and I remember things slightly differently than how they have been portrayed by Greenberg I thought it important to illustrate those differences here. I think the biggest thing I have issue with is the tone Greenberg uses in certain sections, he accurately describes the physical L0pht as a technological clubhouse but then describes clandestine meetings and labels us as miscreants. The description of the L0pht and the events surrounding it only make up a few pages of the over all book but considering the inaccuracies and or liberties Greenberg has taken to describe this one small section I have to wonder what other parts have been slightly embellished or possibly misremembered from his other sources throughout the rest of the book.
On the other hand I am impressed by just how much Greenberg has gotten right. There have been numerous attempts over the years to accurately describe the L0pht and some of the events that surrounded it, despite the inaccuracies I have listed, this is as close as anyone has come. It is obvious that Greenberg put a lot of work into this book, or at least this section, and gathered information from a lot of sources.
Given the topical subject matter I would not be surprised at all to see this book optioned to a movie. Unfortunately a movie will only be two hours long and I don’t see how you would be able to fit this one chapter, let alone the entire book, into two hours without cutting out large chunks and glossing over the many details that took Greenberg so long to gather.