Saturday, February 9, 2019

Ghost in the Wires

Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker
© 2011 Kevin Mitnick, William Simon. Forward by The Woz.
393 pages

CYBERPUNK introduced me to the story of Kevin Mitnick, a teenage phone phreaker turned celebrity hacker,  who boasted that he never used an outside program to break into a company. Instead,  all of his access was obtained by manipulating people within companies into giving him the information.  Writing later as a security consultant, he explained the workings of this manipulation in the book Art of Deception, which I referred to as "interesting but highly repetitive". Well....ditto for Ghost in the Wires.  It's the memoir of a serial, and apparently compulsive, hacker, whose obsession with accessing networks he has no authorization for,  and obtaining information he has no right to have,  utterly consumes his life.  He admits that hacking was like booze for him -- his entertainment, his addiction.  Even when he's barely escaped from one episode, he's already starting the other....and his enormous pride in getting one over on the hapless clerks,  alarmed security admins, and frustrated federal agents is so hubristic that he routinely calls the FBI or accesses their computer network during investigations to see how close they are to the scent. 

It's his compulsiveness that does him in time and again: even when he was relatively safe on the run, with a stolen identity (several, actually) and a comfortable job,  Mitnick is so consumed by his desire to hack that it attracts the attention of his employers, who  fire and investigate him. At one point while working there, for instance, he was on his cell phone putting on a presumably awful Japanese accent to convince an engineer that his counterpart in the Tokyo office needed him to upload cellphone source code to a server Mitnick had access to. One of his coworkers heard this outside the door and could only wonder what on earth was going on.)  When the FBI found his scent, it was because he was trying to collect the source codes for a UNIX release, as well as various next-gen cell phones that were hitting the market. Was he selling them to rival businesses? No. He was collecting them as trophies.  Mitnick is the movie villain who undermines himself by  pausing mid-kill to gloat at the hero, or  decides to consign him to a slow death in an elaborate trap.

This book was informative, however;  Mitnick proves to be far more dangerous than I'd previously believed. He wasn't  just exploring networks as portrayed in CYBERPUNK:   for him, there was no limit to the systems he'd compromise. The DMV, Social Security, Vital Records? Grist for the mill for Kevin to do what he wanted. Admittedly, his technical expertise is admirable, in the same way that Napoleon's army or the Luftwaffe  were technically admirable.  He certainly wasn't just relying on people giving him information, as  he frequently applied patches to systems to give himself  backdoor access later on. What's less admirable is Mitnick's ability to lie to so many people so habitually, to manipulate them like switches on a board. The act is deeply disturbing in itself, but  what happened to the hundreds of receptionists, clerks, and engineers who became Mitnick's unwitting dupes? 

While I began this book guardedly sympathetic to Mitnick (impressed by his talents, a little wary of his lying), by the end I regarded him as a compulsive, hubristic ass. I'm glad he's turned semistraight, in managing to squelch his desire to thwart everyone else,  but the book has virtually no information on that. Was there any soul-searching at all, or was it just a mercenary decision?   Mitnick may be a nice guy in person; he's friends with Steve Wozniak, who has experience with egotistical personalities before  and would presumably recognize it in Mitnick,  but based on this book I wouldn't trust him.

Exploding the Phone
Books by Kevin Mitnick


  1. Great review. Mitnick does sound fascinating. However, as you say, the intriguing aspects of his personality would be outweighed by his willingness to do harm. Your lufvfwaffe and Napoleon comparisons are enlightening and creative.

  2. a little, no, a lot out of my frame of reference, but the total lack of conscience just identifies him as sociopath, of which there are many all around us, mainly in the political arena... your review kind of puts a cape of reality on the imaginary conception of hackers as electronic cowboys... tx for that...


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