Book Review: Fatal System Error by Joseph Menn

I’ve just finished reading Fatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who Are Bringing Down the Internet by Joseph Menn. It’s the last book in a series of fiction and non-fiction I’ve been reading about computer hacking and online theft. If you’re interested in Internet crime, Menn gives a good overview of a case that took place over most of the last decade. It’s light on technology and accessible for anyone interested in a “true crime” look at identity theft and the impact of Russian hackers.

Here’s the review I posted to my Librarything account.

“Fatal System Error” is an excellent non-technical introduction to cybercrime and a particular thread of this online activity that took place over the last decade.

Anyone who spends any amount of time using the Internet is familiar with the themes Menn covers in this book: e-mail scams, viruses, hacking, identity theft. He tells the story of two individuals – one a technologist, the other a police officer – and their experiences identifying and developing a legal case against a Russian cyber theft ring. Menn also outlines U.S. and other national organized crime involvement and online gambling’s contribution to cybercrime.

“Fatal System Error” is relatively light on technological detail – anyone interested in how botnets work, or better explanations of how the modular viruses emerging in the late 2000’s operate, would be better off looking at other texts – but is a straightforward business read.

The last two chapters are the best. The penultimate one deals with how the initially commercial cybercriminals are partnering with national governments to provide infrastructure for cyberwarfare, particularly on behalf of Russian and Chinese interests against their geopolitical opponents. The last chapter is a bit of a wrap-up but looks at some additional successes and how some groups are adapting to block the efforts of the cyber criminals and hackers. (  )

Anyone with technical interest in bot nets and how these sorts of attacks are generated would be better off looking at other books, like Steven Schneier’s now-dated Secrets and Lies: ¬†Digital Security in a Networked World.