An empire of darkness and crime

MISHA Glenny is no stranger to investigating violent individuals. As a correspondent for the Guardian and BBC he covered corrupt politicians and megalomaniac generals in Yugoslavia. Following this, Glenny turned his sights on international crime syndicates, producing his findings in his celebrated 2008 work McMafia.

In his latest, however, Glenny has swapped machine guns, cocaine and violence for USB sticks, internet cafes and nerds. Dark Market documents the rise of cyber-crime – hacking by individuals, criminal gangs and even governments into websites and businesses. The book centres on the growth of the website Dark Market that eventually became the leading online marketplace for the trading of credit card details, computer viruses, espionage services and mercenary hacking work. Tattooed men with anecdotes about assault and bludgeoning have been exchanged for individuals with names like “Cha0” and “Matrix001” who exchange war stories about mighty hacks into government servers and the co-ordination of Zombie-Bot attacks (the latter isn’t nearly as impressive as it sounds – think less Star Wars, more PacMan).

Glenny has achieved a blinder here. Following the careers of a small group of individuals that built up Dark Market, the book opens up a fascinating world of crime all around us. Moving from the Ukraine to the US, UK, France, Turkey, Russia, Estonia and Thailand, Glenny creates a story that encompasses everything from the sheer size of the credit card scamming industry (which gangs now largely outsource to lesser criminals by selling scamming “licenses”), to the increasingly militarised use of hacking by governments against other nations. Admittedly, stories of horses’ heads found in beds and dismembered limbs in bags are disappointingly short here, but the accounts of several different international agencies continually arresting each other’s undercover agents as well as frequently creating scapegoats (creating a few incredible renegades in the process) more than makes up for the lack of abducted students.

Similarly, those that love conspiracy will be amazed to hear stories of Russia courting hackers and offering online legal immunity in order to build up a mercenary army that then went on to bring Estonian banks, media businesses and infrastructure to their knees following political protests. Or the strong suggestion that the overloading of the nuclear reactors that caused explosions at Iran’s nuclear facility came from a computer virus that originated from the US and had military intelligence behind it.

Readers embarking on the book quickly learn that the threat of cyber crime extends beyond Nigerians asking for your sort code and more toward the potential of mercenary armies of superbly intelligent, utterly egotistical and totally unreliable geeks hired short-term by governments to make American traffic lights freeze nationwide and European stock markets plummet through false information (though with the latter we may just put it down to business as usual).

While undercover-journo lovers will fail to be awed by criminals that wage war in their underwear and send death threats that are punctuated with “bro” and “dude” every other line, Glenny has created a seriously thought-provoking work here. The suggestion that future warfare will be waged more on financial markets and transportation freezes rather than battlefields, and Julian Assange-like introverts will replace religious extremists seems a worryingly logical prediction.

Dark Market: Cybercrime, Cybercops and You. Bodley Head, £20.