A novelistic tech tale that puts readers on the front lines of cybersecurity.
For all whose lives and connections depend on the internet—nearly everyone—this biography of the pseudonymous “Alien” provides a fast-paced cautionary tale. Smith (Epic Measures: One Doctor. Seven Billion Patients., 2015, etc.) has enough experience as a computer programmer to understand the technicalities of this world, but his storytelling makes it intelligible to general readers; indeed, the narrative is more character-driven than technology-driven. The book requires a few leaps of faith—not only that Alien is who the author says she is, but that she can so vividly recount events and conversations that happened years before she met the author. The story begins with Alien at MIT. Lacking focus and direction, she was drawn to a hacking community in a time when the term could extend from picking locks to taking drugs and didn’t become more focused on technology until computers became more central to society. The hackers often lived more adventurous lives than many students, and Alien experienced plenty of casual sex, drug use, and a few tragic casualties along the way. She graduated from hacking computer systems to helping protect them from hackers at a time when “Corporations from Microsoft and Cisco on down had begun hiring hackers of their own to help defend themselves against other hackers.” Some worked one side of the fence, some worked the other, and some straddled the line and were capable of “going rogue.” Smith goes into great detail to demonstrate how Alien could penetrate the security of whomever was employing her, showing how a real criminal would do it, and makes fearfully clear that there is “no such thing as absolute security in this world, or any definitive and final fixes.” Alien now runs a small hacking company that assists with security for banks, governments, and other organizations. A page-turning real-life thriller, the sort of book that may leave readers feeling both invigorated and vulnerable.