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Book Review Journal and Software Designs

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Kingpin – Review

by: Kevin Poulsen

Publisher: CROWN, Random House, Inc. New York  www.crownpublishing.com

Cover: Chris Sergio, Jonathan Kitchen

Copyright: 2011

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, 9/2/2011

Summary: Max Butler battles his way to the top of the world-wide, cyber-terrorists network of credit card thieves with inadvertent assistance from the credit card industry and law enforcement.

 It is a safe bet to say that, at least in the early days of computer technology, most of us who developed computer applications started out with the BASIC Programming language (acronym meaning, Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), went on the Assembly (machine code) Language and finally settled in to C or Pascal (later Delphi). There were those who never really graduated to a full appreciation of “computer applications”. Instead they got caught up in the cyber-high where the how is more important than the why.

In Kevin Poulsen’s excellent chronicle of one cyber-high junkie, Max Butler, aka Max Ray Vision, we get a real sense of motives and methods behind the acting-out of individual cyber-terrorists. Such individuals are likely to feel they are victims of one sort or another. In Max’s case, Poulsen concludes that Max felt victimized by the legal system when he was sentenced to five years in prison on the felony assault charge of attempting to strangle his then girl friend with his hands. For reasons Max himself were apparently unable to figure out, the law considered his hands “deadly weapons”. However, this excuse for feeling victimized and striking back by invading other people’s lives through cyber-space is negated by Max’s computer hacking adventures long before being nabbed as a “violent” criminal. In fact, the strongest, most consistent element running through the life of Max Butler was his proclivity of being the spoke with everyone around him being simply part of the rim. This is the I-suffered-so-too-shalt-thou syndrome.

Such individuals have enablers. Plenty of enablers. Willing suffers, we might say.

As Poulsen tells us, Max was “formally inducted into the FBI’s Criminal Informant program” in March 1997. This was after being paroled in 1995 on the five year sentence for assault with a deadly weapon. Max was “introduced” to the FBI as a result of being a part of the Software Publishers Association $300,000 lawsuit against some users of the internet who infringed on software copyrights. The suite was eventually settled for $3,500. Max Butler got a “brief write-up in Wired magazine” and came to the attention of the FBI. Assigned the name Equalizer by the FBI, Max wrote a report that was “an introductory course on the virus-writing, warez, and computer-hacking scenes.” The report only cost the FBI $200. All this of course before the FBI eventually put Max in prison for thirteen years.

KINGPIN follows the story of Max Butler from FBI informant to king-purveyor of stolen credit cards to his cooperation with federal authorities resulting in his “reduced” thirteen year sentence. According to the author, Poulsen, himself an “ex-whitehat” hacker, Max should be out of prison just before Christmas 2018.

Poulsen reports that at his best, Max was making a thousand dollars a day from selling credit card mag-stripe data around the world. In addition, his criminal enterprise with partner Chris Aragon was bringing in “five to ten thousand a month”. The Aragon partnership was a credit card counterfeiting operation in which the mag-stripe data was used to create cards. The author provides some stimulating insights into credit card fraud and credit card companies.

If you read KINGPIN, undoubtedly you will read it for what it says about seemingly murky world of internet hacking, circa 1999. It is worth the read and Poulsen should be commended for his excellent?though perhaps, unnecessarily sympathetic?treatment of both the lift of Max Butler and the world of internet hacking. If there is a “take-away” in this book it is that the world really is connected, including the underworld of self-absorbed imps in adult bodies who believe their suffering is so “special” they just have to share it.

This book is highly recommended.

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