Review: Crack99: The Takedown of a $100 Million Chinese Software Pirate, David Locke Hall, 2015.Crack99

These are the kind of books I like to review – short, informative, a recap of news I missed, and a source for follow up reading.

And I don’t I have to pay for it since this was a review copy from Amazon. Because these books always seem a bit overpriced considering they are short and summarize a lot of news. This one’s fairly cheap though.

As our subject, Xiang Li, the man behind the titular software cracking site Crack99, might say, “The product is pretty. You be pleased. Go tell other people.”

As you would expect from a longtime Assistant US Attorney used to bringing juries to the desired conclusions, Hall recounts his case against Li convincingly and clearly.

He takes us through Homeland Security Investigations (HSI – Homeland Security’s investigative arm that finds it more amenable to pursue counterfeit purses than illegal aliens) showing him the childish looking Crack99 site.

The software it sold for one percent of retail were not versions of Microsoft Office or Adobe products. These programs were very expensive – tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars each – and used for very sophisticated engineering and manufacturing uses. Generally, for a lot of this stuff, you need to, as a mere prerequisite, be an engineer or physicist.

Hall takes us through the legal facts, questions, and obstacles to prosecuting someone running a software pirate site: establishing identity, location of the criminal, criminal intent, establishing whether selling pirated software – sans any physical product but just file transfers over the internet – is stealing. And, of course, there is the not trivial problem of physical getting the cuffs on Mr. Li and taking him back for trial in America.

Hall is a personable fellow who seems to have led an interesting life outside of being a lawyer and he drops in some “war stories” at the beginning of each chapter. That causes a bit of a problem on the concise narration front because one such story is actually a chapter on the arrest of an Iranian arms merchant, Amir Ardebili. (A story covered in John Shiffman’s Operation Shakespeare: The True Story of an Elite International Sting.) Granted, it’s there to show how you go about arresting international criminals on foreign soil and extradite them with the cooperation of other countries, but it’s also 32 pages out of a 290 page story.

Hall is hardly the first ex-public servant to use a book to push his ideas of reform. It’s hard to argue that Chinese industrial espionage goes hand in hand with their military spying and poses a very real threat to American economic and military (and, thus, national) security though Hall makes clear that he has no certain proof that Xiang Li had ties to the Chinese government. Hall wants more people in the US Department of Justice and military to follow his lead and prosecute these software pirates.

Brief Additional Thoughts

Though my time in government has been at a completely different level and involved in the enforcement of completely different laws, some of Hall’s experiences are familiar.

Reluctance to do the hard work. Hall labels this, in the world of law enforcement, “big cases, big problems” or “junk food” — quick and not the best for the public. Some people refer to this as the Easier For Them explanation of government behavior. I call it going after the soft targets.

Evil metrics. (Hall doesn’t use the “e” word, but I will.) Governments love to use metrics because it sounds oh-so-private sector and official and accountable. Well, government is not a business. Its “customers” don’t usually have a choice in using or paying for its services. Metrics can be gamed in so many ways — and are by so many government agencies — that you might as well not use them. (Sir John Cowperthwaite collected almost no statistics when he governed Hong Kong.)

I liked Hall because he reminded me of some of the older men I’ve worked with in government who had “war stories” to tell — literal war stories as well as things they did in their career before management became so rigid and ignorant.

Which brings me to Hall’s boss who “knew nothing about the Chinese government’s sponsorship and encouragement of cyber intrusion and espionage”. I didn’t quite take the time to break down who this was (Hall never names his bosses), but obviously giving even a cursory glance at the day’s newspapers is not a prerequisite for a US Attorney.

Hall calls the Chinese government “totalitarian”.  I wouldn’t go that far, but I would call them fascistic in the sense that their governments and businesses are closely co-ordinated to pursue national ends. Both co-operate in espionage as shown in David Wise’s Tiger Trap.

And I’m suspicious of those ends. China is full of smart people who resent that their civilization was eclipsed by the West and are determined to catch up and, to my mind, dominate the world. (Though that is merely a suspicion.  People who know China way better, out of experience and study, than me disagree on the future of U.S. and China relationships.)

Just as U.S. political circles asked “Who lost China?” when the Communists came to power there, I suspect future historians will be busy cataloging the foolishness of our trade and immigration policies with China. As Pat Buchanan has pointed out, free market Britain was eventually eclipsed by not so free traders Germany and America. American dominance was partially the result of an industrial espionage program that, for its day, was rather like China’s now.  Peter Andreas’ Smuggler Nation talks about this briefly.

I’m not the only one seemingly unkeen on a future dominated by China. Given the number of Chinese women practicing obstetric tourism, many of them may not be keen on it either.

Finally, in a two page argument, Hall thinks perhaps  we “might be doing something wrong” because black and Hispanic men are convicted of certain crimes in a greater proportion than whites. I have a suggestion to Mr. Hall in his retirement — glance at a map of world homicide rates and ponder the patterns. While you’re there, follow up by reading the FAQ at the esteemed blog of JayMan.


The Espionage page.