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Masters of Deception: The Gang That Ruled Cyberspace
Michelle Slatalla and Joshua Quittner
Narrated by Colby Elliott, unabridged
Last Word Audio, 7 hours, 10 minutes

Masters of Deception: The Gang That Ruled Cyberspace
Michelle Slatalla and Joshua Quittner
Michelle Slatalla is a New York Times columnist and author of The Town on Beaver Creek She currently writes a weekly column for the New York Times called 'Wife/Worker/Mother/Spy' and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She lives in San Francisco Bay Area with her husband Joshua Quittner and family.

Joshua Quittner joined Time Inc. as a staff writer in 1995. From April 2002 until September 2007, he wrote for Business 2.0. After Business 2.0, he served briefly as an executive editor at Fortune Magazine, working out of its San Francisco bureau, before rejoining Time in April 2008 as an editor-at-large.

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Steven Brandt

It's 1989, and while personal computers have been around for a few years, their full potential is still largely untapped. Only about one household in three owns a computer, and most that do own them don't really know what to do with them. But there are an elite few who understand instinctively that mastery of the computer means power. These few are almost always teenage boys, are highly intelligent, and are bored. It was fun at first, like a game, but when a couple of hackers gain access to New York Telephone's computer system, the stakes are suddenly much higher.

In hacker circles, everyone knows that the Legion of Doom, or L O D, is at the top of the game. Best friends Paul Stira and Eli Ladopoulos, have dreamed of joining the upper echelon of computer hackers for as long as they can remember, but so far they haven't been able to catch the eyes of the L O D. After a late-night session of trashing, Paul and Eli believe that their time has finally come. Trashing is just what it sounds like, literally picking through the trash of a business, hoping to find computer printouts that contain a password or an access code. Paul and Eli just hit the motherlode, a password that gets them into the computer system of New York Telephone.

During the next several months, Paul and Eli explore the telephone system until they know it like their own bedrooms. Of course, mastery over the phone lines is a little like being God in cyberspace. They can now call anywhere in the world for free, give themselves conference calling or call waiting, not to mention what they can do to the phone lines of their rival hackers. Suddenly, Paul and Eli realize that they don't need to join the L O D, now they have people who want to join THEM, including Mark Abene, also known as Fiber Optic, the most famous hacker of all.

The new group starts calling itself the M O D, in mockery of rival gang L O D. M O D is a way to identify themselves, while also retaining some anonymity. M O D could stand for just about anything, after all. It's all out war in cyberspace, but with the M O D controlling the phone lines, the L O D never really had a chance.

On January 15, 1990, AT&T's computer system crashes, leaving millions of subscribers without telephone service, and just like that, hacking is not just a game anymore. The boys didn't know it, but someone was watching. Someone in the security office at the phone company noticed their excursions into the system, and have been quietly collecting evidence for several months. That man has been in touch with the Secret Service, and they have been watching, too. Shortly after the AT&T crash, the raids begin.

Reading this audiobook was like taking a trip down memory lane. In the late 80s, I was a pretty big fan of the new fad of personal computers, although I never took it quite as far as these guys. Hearing some of the language from those days really brought back some memories though: Commodore 64's, Apple 2's, TRS 80's, and Vic 20's. Those were the good old days.

Husband and wife team, Michelle Slatalla and Joshua Quittner were both reporters during this time, and covered the story for five years before writing Masters of Deception. Their dedication to the story shows. They display an intimate knowledge, not only on the home computer setups, but also on the corporate side, mainframe supercomputers and the like, and especially with the inner workings of a major telephone company, with its gigantic computers that process and route millions of calls per day. The hard work and research paid off; they gave a lot of technical detail without sounding like an instruction manual. Everything is in layman's terms that almost anyone can understand.

The legalities of this case, also thoroughly explored by the authors, were interesting. It was the beginning of the information age, and our judicial system was woefully unequipped to handle this type of futuristic crime. The experts from the phone company had a pretty hard time explaining what the hackers had done, and why it was so dangerous. Whole new branches of law enforcement had to be created and there was a lot of catching up to do. Who were the crimes committed against: the phone company or the customers? Who had jurisdiction: FBI or Secret Service? It was the dawning of a whole new age, and this was a fascinating account of some of that age's pioneers.

Colby Elliott, who also happens to be the founder of Last Word Audio, has been working as a voice-over artist for several years, but is relatively new to the world of audiobook narration. I think he has a lot of potential in the field; his speaking voice is pleasant enough, and his inflection and intonation are good. A bad narrator can make it pretty hard to focus on an audiobook, but that was not a problem with Masters of Deception at all.

I enjoyed Masters of Deception. I'm not sure that the subject matter will appeal to a wide audience, but science fiction fans will almost certainly like it, especially if you liked the movie War Games. Fans of true crime stories would probably find it interesting as well.

Copyright © 2011 Steven Brandt

Steven Brandt spends most of his waking hours listening to audiobooks and reviewing them for his blog, Audiobook Heaven. When not reading or reviewing, Steven is usually playing the saxophone for the entertainment and amusement of his family.

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