Cult of the Dead Cow

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 27 Sep 2019

Member Reviews

An intriguing, thorough history of the most (in)famous group of hackers and their influence on Silicon Valley, technology, and the internet. Should appeal to readers who enjoy shows like Halt and Catch Fire and Mr. Robot.
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This book was a bit slow moving and I wasn't able to get fully into it. That said the 68% of it that I did read was interesting. I could see this being a great book for anyone interested in the history or anyone going into a security field.
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In the early BBS days it wasn't always easy to find like-minded individuals; and even if you could they were probably located all over the country, resulting in hideous long-distance bills unless you knew a trick or two.

The Cult of the Dead Cow was mainly a group of grey hay hackers who were pushing for any security at all on computers. Computer companies mainly ignored the notion that there should be any security at all on their machines, failing to face realities that still exist today.

If you're into computer security at all, many of the names in this book will be recognized. If you are a network administrator, you'll recognize some of the products they produced or helped with along the way. And if you use a computer at all (and if you're reading this you qualify) you'll recognize some of the companies they went on to work for, and also leave because the company doesn't believe in the CdC philosophies of security.

The book is fairly interesting, but has a few dry spots. It really seems mostly aimed to people who followed the CdC when it was still a mostly little-known group putting out software like BackOrifice. 

A bonus for the people who care not for security is the chapter near the end about Beto O'Rourke. While he wasn't a big part of the group, he was a member. And could end up as the "most recognized" members, even though others did far more in the years since to make sure that there is less chance of your computer transactions being intercepted.
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From exposing security issues during the early days of the Internet to quashing modern-day political misinformation, one group of hackers has been through it all: Cult of the Dead Cow. By latching onto their own branch of “hacktivism”, this group has morphed from an eclectic group of enthusiasts to a movement intent on fighting for greater online security.

Journalist Joseph Menn has pulled together perhaps the most encompassing looks at one the longest-serving hacker collectives. This in and of itself is a major feat considering the Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc) remains a highly secretive organization. While some of the members have been open about their experiences, including presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, others have preferred the anonymity an online persona provides (under secure circumstances, of course). So Menn does deserve credit for pulling plenty of materials, including interviews with members, into a compelling, often entertaining, and somewhat perplexing narrative.

And what a story. Putting aside the often dubious legality of the cDc’s actions, their story starts with a group of bored teens in Texas during the mid-1980s and propels into a present where several members are professionals, working on cybersecurity— some in the Silicon Valley private sector and others for government entities. The path there is long and complex, but Menn successfully cultivates this story by sliding around tech-heavy jargon and focusing instead on the human idea of maturity— a gradual online process for the cDc.

These moments click, from the Black Orifice Microsoft debacle in the ‘90s to frustrations with WikiLeaks during the 2016 election, the group showcases obvious growth and an enriched viewpoint. With such a solid throughline, ultimately, Menn has crafted an interesting examination of how hacking has progressed in its use for good.
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While I did find this book an interesting read, I found it difficult to get through and it took me longer than usual because it's a subject that I'm not overly familiar with. I think if I already had some knowledge of this area of technology, I would have enjoyed the book a lot more.
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This book is more than a history of the shadowy “hactivist” organization known as Cult of the Dead Cow, whose members were/are prominent, primarily anonymous, ethical hackers starting in the 1980s through the present. It is a record of the dawn of computer security, personal computers, computer networks,  and the ethical concerns, data breaches and activism that have accompanied the flourishing of computer tech over the last few decades. 

I have an interest in tech but I am not an industry insider. I enjoyed this book for the inside look at the many elements that have contributed to computer security and continue to shape our computer networks today. I was not familiar with all (or even most) of the players, but as a person who lived through all of this era, I found the in-depth details about various headline news stories of the past to be fascinating. 

I think this book would be even more relevant for a person involved with the industry. The sheer number of people and technical details was overwhelming to me at times. However, as a history of a side of the computer industry that often operates behind the scenes,  the book is a highly detailed and fascinating account of how computer security has developed, some of the major breaches, how security organizations and governments have reacted and the stories of numerous individuals in and associated with The Cult of the Dead Cow group. 

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“Technology is deciding the fate of the world, and we are everywhere in its chains,” begins Menn’s story of the infamous Cult of the Dead Cow. Menn traces the evolution of this group, weaving a story about the strength of ideas and their profound impact on the cyber technology that we use today. It is immensely gratifying to learn of the many successes CDC’s members achieved. These are people who exemplify the value of critical thinking, the value of ideas, and the value of friendship in the cyber environment. The most important aspect of the book is the way Menn grounds CDC’s tale through the lens of ethical actors trying to reconcile cyber-techno advances with their effects on society—something we as governments, corporations, and individuals have yet to reconcile. You don’t have to be a techie to enjoy or understand this book, Menn’s straight-forward style does not get bogged down in techno-jargon. Also, it’s not all about Beto, who is just one of many CDC members mentioned in this book. Menn uses members’ online identities. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was already reading some of them online without knowing their CDC affiliation or all the excellent work they had done in their past. What’s clear to me, after reading this book, is we need these creative, critical thinkers, these cyber giants even more now than ever.
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Many may not know the name, but their members impacted everyone that uses the internet to connect to the wider world. Learn the story of these hackers in Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World.

Cult Of The Dead Cow

Though the malicious ones largely dominate the headlines, hackers have done more to help than hurt. The story of Cult of the Dead Cow shows the many ways one group of hackers has helped make security a priority for many of those charged with keeping us (and our information) safe in our online world.

While they operate mostly behind the scenes, members of Cult of the Dead Cow have had an amazing impact on our electronic universe. What started as a small group on a bulletin board, has grown to guide and transform numerous diverse areas of computer security.

Members of cDC and L0pht Heavy Industries have advised the US Senate on security matters. They've headlined countless hacking and computer security conferences like DEF CON. The stories of their exploits (in both senses) are shared in this detailed story.

Those interested in the history of computer security, this is a great read. For those who read their work and followed the cDC growing up, it's a bit of a nostalgic trip, full of interesting details.

The Supergroup

There's no doubt that the work done by cDc members throughout the years, and today, has made our online world a safer place. Their impact should be recognized and shared. Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World is a wonderful history of individuals that have shaped our world.

Order your copy of Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World on Amazon now and learn more about the impact cDc has had.
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|| Book Review - Cult of the Dead Cow ||
3 Stars, ***/5

Working in computer science and security, I'm always interested to hear some of the history that built up the industry I'm involved in. I was provided a copy of Cult of the Dead Cow by Joseph Menn by @netgalley and @perseus_books for review.

The book is a really great deep dive history of the hacker collected Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc) which has recently come back into focus with the presidential campaign of cDc member Beto O'Rourke. The coverage of the foundation and growth of cDc is truly in depth and that may stand as the biggest point in favor and against the book.

Names (both actual and of the hacker variety) abound and without your computer on your lap to continuously Google stuff that comes up, it got really challenging to keep track of all the players and their various contributions. The historical context of the group and their involvement in other high profile hacker groups, government agencies and non-profit groups was very interesting but it was a lot to parse.

I'd recommend this book to IT, IS and information security experts and anyone with a genuine love for the history of the internet and all it's corresponding parts and pieces. It's a dense read but worthwhile, though definitely not for everyone. I don't think I'd recommend this to a casual reader.
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