Cult of the Dead Cow: the untold story of the hacktivist group that presaged everything great and terrible about the internet

Back in 1984, a lonely, weird kid calling himself Grandmaster Ratte' formed a hacker group in Lubbock, Texas. called the Cult of the Dead Cow, a name inspired by a nearby slaughterhouse. In the decades to come, cDc would become one of the dominant forces on the BBS scene and then the internet — endlessly inventive, funny and prankish, savvy and clever, and sometimes reckless and foolish — like punk-rock on a floppy disk.

Joe Menn (previously) is a veteran tech reporter whom I've known since the Napster wars, and he has always had a knack for digging into the human backstories behind his stories — without falling into the trap of ignoring the big picture in favor of cheap and sentimental biography. His new book, Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World, is his best reporting so far — a beautifully researched, engrossingly told story about how cDc and its members and offshoot groups invented much of what has become normal in the modern practice of tech and security, from coordinated disclosure policies, to hacker cons that welcome in the press and even feds, to hacker spaces, to proof-of-concept-based security disclosures, to less savory practices, like promulgating fake news and allowing toxic cultural pockets to fester where misogyny, abuse and racism all fester.

I read the book with great interest, not least because I was present or nearby when many of the events described in the book took place, and many of the principal characters are old, present or former friends of mine, including a few very dear friends indeed. From that insider vantagepoint, I can affirm that Menn's treatment of the subjects — from the outlandish, outrageous and always outsized — is faithful and evenhanded.

The cDc was vital to the formation of so many offshoots — from l0pht Heavy Industries to the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab and beyond — that parts of Menn's book read like Genesis, with one begat after another. Setting these up turns out to be vital to the wider tale of the book, though, as Menn traces the cDc members' journeys through teenaged nihilism to a rough-and-ready code of ethics, to a turning point where some of the members become deeply involved in human rights struggles while others go to work for the US military/intelligence machine on both defensive and offense capability development, while others go into industry, sometimes going to work for the security industry and others signing up to develop the cyber-weapons wielded against advocates for human rights.

Tracing how the cDc grappled with the wider geopolitics, ethics and commercial world of computer security turns out to be a perfect microcosm for reviewing the wider shifts in tech, business and policy, which are all, in some very real sense, cDc's legacy (famously, Menn's book outed Beto O'Rourke as cDc member "Psychedelic Warlord").

Telling a story as intensely technological as the cDc's is a serious challenge: so much of what they achieved and fought over turns on important and subtle questions of technology that it would be easy to make this either eye-glazingly techie or so superficial as to be meaningless. Instead, Menn zeroes in on a perfect spot between the personalities and the tools, and in so doing, answers some important questions about how we arrived at the place we're at today, where information security is at the heart of questions of national security, human rights, free speech, and the survival of our democracies and our species itself.

Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World [Joseph Menn/Publicaffairs]