• United States

Outward signs of talent

May 06, 20043 mins

* Review of the novel ‘No Outward Sign’

I had the pleasure of listening to Bill Neugent at the annual meeting of the Federal Information Systems Security Educators Association in March. Neugent is the chief engineer for 200 cybersecurity experts at MITRE, and not only did he deliver one of the best keynote speeches I’ve ever heard (I volunteered this quote for his Web site: “One of the best speakers I’ve ever heard. Brilliant, stimulating and entertaining.”), but he also told us about his 2002 novel, _No Outward Sign_. I read his book on my way home from the conference and enjoyed it thoroughly.

The story begins with the destruction of an Amtrak railway train – a terrorist act that has a dreadful resonance given the recent horrible events in Spain. We are introduced to brilliant FBI computer crime expert Paige Langford, who has been responsible for tracking down and convicting criminal hackers for the Bureau. Then we meet Brent Singleton, a criminal hacker with a social conscience. I have to say that I don’t generally like novels in which criminal hackers are presented as heroes, but I came to like Brent in spite of my prejudices.

Brent is an interesting person. He is dying from a brain tumor and has taken the last five months off from his leadership of a worldwide hacktivist network to resume his study of the cello. He is kind, thoughtful and passionate about ideas and values. He was married to an Iraqi woman, lived in Iraq, learned Arabic, and was imprisoned by the dictator of that country.

As the story develops, we realize there is a serious attack in progress on the infrastructure of the U.S. using information warfare techniques. Singleton tries his best to fight the attack but his hostility to government agencies makes him a prickly ally for Langford and other law enforcement and intelligence agents. He breaks into systems to test their vulnerabilities, annoys these corporations whose interests are threatened by honest disclosure of their technical difficulties, and courts arrest at every turn. Even his international activist colleagues have doubts about his abilities and leadership.

Nonetheless, Singleton manages to convince most of his hacktivist friends and at least a few of the government information warriors to pay attention to his warnings and accept his information at face value.

I dare not continue too far in this review for fear of spoiling a really good yarn. Suffice it to say that perhaps the greatest compliment to any writer is to say that the people he writes about become real to his readers. I found that I genuinely cared about the people in this novel and that they have stayed with me in the weeks since I finished reading it.

Neugent’s ideas are sound; his warnings about infrastructure vulnerabilities need to be accepted at the highest levels of strategic thinking. Read this book if you like realistic sci-fi novels.