May 25, 2015


Books

Hacker filled the tank with nerve, took FBI on wild ride

EVEN though he never stole a single dime, Kevin Mitnick was for a time the world's most wanted hacker, on the run from the FBI and evading capture even as he delved further into the computer underground.

To some he was a hero of the information age; to others, he was a brazen villain, cracking into telecommunications systems and doing who-knows-what inside. But no matter what you think (or thought) of Mitnick's misadventures, his fast-paced memoir makes it clear: this hacker's greatest asset wasn't his computer. It was the sheer size of his cojones.

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These days Mitnick, 48, is a security consultant and something of a high-tech celebrity. But Ghost in the Wires introduces us to a mischievous California kid who started messing with phone systems for the challenge of it all.

The book, written with his longtime collaborator William Simon, closes shortly after his release from prison in 2000, when he walked out of custody and into a crowd of supporters bearing "Free Kevin" signs.

Not tech-savvy? No problem. Though there are nuggets of technical detail, Mitnick's memoir is mostly a captivating caper of one man's brazen ability to win passwords and influence people.

He's written about this before: his first book, 2002's The Art of Deception, used fictional examples to explain "social engineering" -- which is best defined as how anyone with enough brass can bluff their way into getting sensitive information from almost anyone.

People love to be helpful, Mitnick notes, and Ghost in the Wires' grandest adventures comes from his attempts to exploit this instinct -- but always, he emphasizes, for his own curiosity.

From telephone system workers, he conned information that allowed him to listen in on almost any phone call in the Los Angeles area. From cellphone developers in Japan, Finland, England and the United States, he got his hands on some of the cellular industry's most prized trade secrets. From a Social Security employee, Mitnick got the details that began to unravel an undercover FBI sting against him.

But though he foiled that sting, it nonetheless toppled the dominoes of his freedom. Mitnick spent almost three years on the run, crafting fake identities and delving more and more feverishly into hacking and social engineering in order to escape the FBI's tightening net.

All the while, he watched newspapers splash his photo across their pages, emblazoned with allegations that he had stolen national state secrets (he has always denied this) and could launch nuclear weapons by whistling into a phone (ludicrous).

The cat-and-mouse game ended badly for Mitnick, at least at the time. But the increasing audacity of his schemes makes for a gripping read. In one of the book's more surreal moments, Mitnick flees from a police raid on his Seattle apartment -- then turns around and poses as a secret service agent and a district attorney in order to pry out more information about their investigation on him.

This is the stuff great spy novels are made of -- even if the hackneyed prose sometimes isn't. But sometimes, the memoir's most arresting moments come from the little details, such as when his remarkably forgiving grandmother sat in a parking lot for three hours, waiting for her grandson to return from an errand to a photocopy shop.

She didn't know he was miles away, having just narrowly escaped police after a furious foot chase.

It's a funny and sad and heart-thumping anecdote. And it perfectly reveals the madness of Mitnick's double life -- a tale that once terrified law enforcement but now, two decades later, will take everyone who reads it on the wildest of rides.

 

Melissa Martin is a Free Press reporter.

Book review

  • Ghost in the Wires
  • By Kevin Mitnick with William L. Simon
  • Little, Brown, 413 pages, $29

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 20, 2011 J9

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