The world of cybersecurity can often be a place of doom and gloom. That’s what Reuters reporter and author Joe Menn focused on in his 2010 book, Fatal System Error. The book is an attempt to get folks in Washington, the industry as a whole and everyday people to realize that cybersecurity is a major issue. Now, nearly 10 years later, his mission has come to fruition. The public, government and tech leaders have recognized cybersecurity as a matter of critical importance, and people at every level are looking for solutions to it.
In this time of minor panic, Joe wanted to spotlight a group of hackers who are doing good. His latest book, Cult of the Dead Cow, was released in June and named one of Hudson Booksellers Best Books of 2019. It follows the story of the original hacktivism group – and oldest group of computer hackers in U.S. history – through inception as a group of Texas kids with an interest in computers to the experienced hackers and technology professionals who testified in front of Congress.
Joe joined us in the Highwire San Francisco office to chat through his latest book and answer all of our burning questions. We’ll share some of the behind-the-scenes information he let us in on, but be careful – some spoilers ahead!
How do you get sources to open up and trust you?
One of the challenges of writing a book about hackers, especially ones with a sometimes dodgy past, is that they’re not typically over-sharers. In order to get information to write his book, Joe took significant care in building relationships with each of the folks he interviewed. He spent a lot of time hanging out with the Cult of the Dead Cow members and holding sessions that were completely off the record. “You can’t burn people,” he said, “or that will get around in seconds.” He tries to be as transparent as possible with his interviewees and make his intentions clear. Once you burn someone, he shared, you’re finished in that industry or beat.
How does writing longform differ from writing journalistically?
For his day job, which he is incredibly enthusiastic about, Joe works as a Reuters cybersecurity reporter. During the three-year process of writing Cult of the Dead Cow, he maintained a steady cadence of article output for Reuters all while conducting innumerable interviews, writing and editing the book. He shared that the primary differentiator in writing for news is that, in a book, readers want the third act already concluded and they don’t want the author to cause the third act outside of their work.
For example, the result of his investigative reporting for Reuters can come in the form of company policy updates, leadership or staffing turnover and overall positive change. In a book, his readers expect that the final chapter, so to speak, will have already happened – they expect resolution. Despite enjoying the impact his work has on the cyber and tech industries, Joe’s goal when writing a full-length book is to provide the full story, start to finish, to give readers a colorful and accurate understanding of the events that took place.
Key takeaways and interesting facts learned along the way
As a reporter, and overall interested party, Joe followed the Cult of the Dead Cow closely over the years. For a time, he even received their emailers, but there were still some things that were surprising to learn along his research gathering journey. He learned that the group’s most important way to build trust and community was through meeting in person, especially at HoHoCon. “Their mediums of communication changed from bulletins to email to Slack,” he said, “but the personal meetings have always been the most important.”
During his nascent information gathering period, the Cult of the Dead Cow members mentioned that they had a former member who was then in Congress. With his investigative research and powers of deduction, he was able to determine that Beto O’Rourke was the member in question, spoke with him for the book and published a Reuters article revealing his inclusion. This information was one of the biggest revelations and well kept secrets of the group.
Cult of the Dead Cow’s legacy and future
The Cult of the Dead Cow has influenced hackers and activists since the 1980s, and they continue to do so today. The largest group of Cult of the Dead Cow members joined together for an in-person panel at DEF CON 27 moderated by Joe, and members have gone on to create successful careers in tech, such as Chris Wysopal, co-founder of Veracode. In a time of political and social uncertainty, Joe has shown that there are still people out there fighting for good. Not only that, but they’re training and influencing the next generation to follow in their footsteps. Grab your copy of Cult of the Dead Cow to get more details from the horse’s (or cow’s) mouth.