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Mike Riley

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Stealing the Network: The Complete Series Collector's Edition Review

May 08, 2009

I have been a fan of the Stealing the Network series since the first book was released six years ago.  The series finally concludes with the release of this special collector's edition.  Did it go out with a bang or a wimper?  Read on to find out.

Stealing the Network: The Complete Series Collector's Edition consists of the four previously published StN books (How to Own the Box, How to Own a Continent, How to Own an Identity and How to Own a Shadow) with a twenty page conclusion for the series, aptly titled 'The Final Chapter'.  Separately, each of the books retails for $49.95 US, so the $89.95 US cover price for the collector's edition is a bargain for those who have yet to experience the deeply technical thriller that follows the exploits of shady criminal Robert Knoll (who goes by the hacker handle, Knuth).  Prior to the collector's edition, I had read all four of the books but found the series sputtering after 'Identity' because the novelty was wearing off as well as the creative exploits being described in the books were becoming more obscure and less threatening.  Perhaps this was because all the significant and obvious exploits were already mined in the first two books and the authors for obvious reasons didn't want to revisit previously described exploits.  

Flush with success after the first two books, the authors seemed to stretch their confidence into serious fiction writers with more character development in the Identity and Shadow stories.  It doesn't work as well as the first two books which had the fresh security story concept to help carry the fiction.  The exploits also start running low on steam and creativity toward the end of the series with the inventive ones already disclosed earlier.  The authors are first and foremost security experts, not literary masters, and their attempts to 'go Tom Clancy' in the last two books fell flat.  

The best book in the series for me still remains 'How to Own a Continent' and it's the one that hooked me into following StN to its conclusion.  With each book, including the last entry, 'How to Own a Shadow', unresolved tension left the option open for the series to continue.  With the release of this hardcover compendium and the exclusive last chapter wrapping up the story in the form of 'the final chapter', this educational security series masquerading as a high tech fictional thriller has finally come to a bittersweet conclusion (at least with these characters).  That's too bad.  Given the increasingly nefarious evolution of application, operating system and network security exploits, this series could have been infused with a jolt.   With insidious black hat technologies like the Conficker worm, the next book in the series could have been called "Stealing the Network: How to Own the World", which by some security researchers accounts, Conficker might accomplish, at least in a conceptual sense.  This reviewer hopes that the series has not been terminated, only that it will lie dormant for the next few years and re-emerge with a modern remake ala the Star Trek movie.

One of the disappointing, overhyped special features of the book is the inclusion of a DVD (i.e., to be played back on a standard DVD player) with about 20 minutes of interviews shot at a security convention featuring the main authors of the series.  While these conversations disclosed some insight into the early developmental history of the StN series concept, I had much higher expectations for this 'exclusive' collectors edition bonus.  Ideas of 'director's cuts', rough drafts, PDF/Kindle formats, open source and commercial demos of the exploit and penetration testing tools mentioned in the book were just some of the goodies I envisioned to be included on this more than 4 GB disc.  Perhaps fans of the series will just have to wait for the 'Ultimate' edition, if ever such a remix comes to pass.

In the end, the StN Collector's Edition delivers interesting stories, though what seemed like ingenious exploits several years ago have long since been patched, their voracity defanged.  For fans of the series, the novelty has been worn down with age and was never really revitalized in the latter part of the series.  Nevertheless, for those who have yet to experience the authors clever mix of highly technical computer security disucssions with entertaining techno-thriller fiction, the StN Collector's Edition delivers a satisfying albeit aging educational yarn.


Title:  Stealing the Network: The Complete Collector's Edition
Authors: by Johnny Long, Ryan Russell and Timothy Mullen
Publisher: Syngress
ISBN: 978-1597492997
Price: $89.95
Page Count: 1082

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