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Book Review: Ghost In the Wires 77

brothke writes "During the 1990's when Kevin Mitnick was on the run, a cadre of people were employed to find him and track him down. Anyone who could have an angle on Mitnick was sought after by the media to provide a sound bite on the world's most dangerous computer hacker. Just one example is John Markoff, who became a star journalist for his work at The New York Times, and a follow-up book and series of articles based on Mitnick. In Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the Worlds Most Wanted Hacker, the first personal account of what really happened; Mitnick says most of the stories around him were the result of the myth of Kevin Mitnick, and nothing more. In the book, he attempts to dispel these myths and set the record straight." Read below for the rest of Ben's review.
Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker
author Kevin Mitnick
pages 432
publisher Little, Brown and Company
rating 9/10
reviewer Ben Rothke
ISBN 0316037702
summary Kevin Mitnick's fascinating firsthand story
Some of the myths were that he was responsible for the phone of actress Kristy McNichol to be disconnected, and perhaps the most preposterous of them all, that he could whistle into a telephone and launch missiles from NORAD. The latter myth was responsible for him spending a year in solitary confinement. Mitnick notes that he thinks it was the federal prosecutor who got that idea from the movie WarGames.

But no one really knew Mitnick or what he was about. Left on his own, he would likely have been harmless. All he wanted to do was get into corporate sites, download code, play with the code and then move on to the next target. It is undeniable that Mitnick committed crimes; but it was unreasonable for the FBI to have made him a top priority for capture.

Perhaps the most widely stated myth about him is that he was strictly a social engineer without significant technical experience. While it was his gift of social engineering that facilitated his ability to get a significant amount of information from unsuspecting individuals; in many places in the book, Mitnick details technical Unix exploits that he carried out. The book makes it clear that Mitnick had the deep technical skills necessary to execute on the information he illicitly obtained.

While the book does have a lot of technical details, it mainly is about the human side of Mitnick. Chapter 1 is appropriately titled "Rough Start." He details his early days of growing up in the Los Angeles area.

These formative years as a hyperactive child, growing up with a single mom who had boyfriends that abused him and one who worked in law enforcement that molested him; may have been what led Mitnick to find solace behind a keyboard.

Mitnick writes how his first hack and entry into the world of dumpster diving was to forge bus transfers so he could ride around Los Angeles to occupy his time while his mother was at work.

In numerous places, Mitnick sincerely expresses his contrition for the pain he subjected his mother, grandmother, aunt, wife and others to.

Above and beyond his rough start, Mitnick also notes how he had his share of bad luck. He writes that too many times when he was growing up, including having to deal with various probation officers, unexplained failures in technology anywhere would be attributed to him. When the phone of his probation officers went dead, he was assumed to be the culprit.

The reality is that the world did not know what to make of Mitnick or what to do with him. It is pretty clear from the book and from every other account that Mitnick was never it in for the money. He simply was a hacker whose goal was to gain root, and nothing more. Such a notion was incredulous to law enforcement, and even to Ivan Boesky who Mitnick met in prison. When he briefly sat with Boesky on a prison bench, he writes that when Boesky found out he did it for the hacking thrill, Boesky replied that "you're in prison and you didn't make any money. Isn't that stupid?"

It is worthy to point out that Mitnick's escapades were radically different from that of Frank Abagnale, whom Mitnick is often compared to. In Catch Me If You Can: The True Story of a Real Fake, Abagnale writes that he impersonated an airline pilot, masqueraded as the supervising resident of a hospital, practiced law without a license, passed himself off as a college sociology professor and cashed over $2.5 million in forged checks; all before he was twenty-one. For those myriad offenses, Abagnale served five years in prison, roughly the same amount of time that Mitnick served.

In chapter 31, it details how Mitnick's world turned upside down and the myth of Kevin Mitnick took hold with the now infamous Markoff 1994 New York Times article Cyberspaces Most Wanted: Hacker Eludes F.B.I. Pursuit. Mitnick writes that the article is what put the myth of Kevin Mitnick into overdrive, and would later embarrass the FBI into making the search for him a top priority. It also provided a fictional image that would later influence prosecutors and judges into treating him as a danger to national security.

Mitnick's eventual capture is detailed in chapter 35 — "Game Over." He notes that Assistant US attorney Kent Walker made a secret arrangement to provide Tsutomu Shimomura with confidential trap-and-trace information as well as confidential information from Mitnick's FBI file. This was done so Shimomura could intercept Mitnick's communications without a warrant, under the premise that Shimomura was not assisting the agency, rather he was working for the ISP.

Mitnick writes that he was never charged with hacking Shimomura, as it would have exposed the gross misconduct of the FBI, who apparently violated Federal wiretapping statues in the rush to track him down.

Overall, Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the Worlds Most Wanted Hacker is a most interesting read. While the book does goes into technical details of how Mitnick carried out his attacks, editor William Simon provides the editorial assistance needed and makes the book extremely readable and enjoying. Much of the books readability is due to Simon, and Mitnick acknowledges this.

When a convicted felon writes a book emotions run high. In some ways, Mitnick's story is that of redemption. He did wrongs, paid his dues and is trying to move forward. Something like that should be admired. Never does Mitnick downplay his guilt or make Dan White-like excuses.

But some people will never let a person like Mitnick let go of the past. In his review of the book, Rich Jaroslovsky, a technology columnist for Bloomberg News shows no sympathy for Mitnick when he pretentiously writes that "genius comes in many forms. Kevin Mitnick has at least two, neither particularly admirable".

The book ends with Mitnick's release from prison and provides the reader with a fascinating story of one of the most recognized information security personalities. Ghost in the Wires is an interesting account of one of the most well-known information security personalities.

Mitnick's years on the run were simply a media circus and the years after his parole he found the terms of his probation so restricted that he could not touch a keyboard. Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the Worlds Most Wanted Hackeris an autobiography long in coming and worth the wait.

Ben Rothke is the author of Computer Security: 20 Things Every Employee Should Know.

You can purchase Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.


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Book Review: Ghost In the Wires

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Look forward to reading this. The Art of deception was pretty good

    • by jessecurry ( 820286 ) <> on Friday August 26, 2011 @02:33PM (#37221558) Homepage Journal
      I really got sucked into this one. I saw Mitnick on the Colbert Report, downloaded the sample to my iPad, quickly reached the end of the sample, purchased the full copy, then read until the book was finished. I heard the other side of the story while I was really into computer security, this made getting Mitnick's personal account of events something that really interested me. Reading through this book brought back a lot of memories and proved to be much more enjoyable than I had initially anticipated.
      • by LupusUF ( 512364 )

        I did the same thing but on my Kindle. When I heard about the new book, I was interested (since I enjoyed The Art of Deception), and got the sample for my kindle. When I was finished with the sample, I quickly clicked the link to purchase the whole book.

        I really enjoyed it. While I'm fairly knowledgeable about computers, I know very little about the phone system. He did go into some technical detail, but I never found it difficult to follow. I think people without a background in computers may find som

  • Kevin was interviewed by Leo Laport and Tom Merritt this week on their TWIT show, Triangulation: []
    It was really fun to listen too. His McDonalds story had me rolling.
    Just based on the interview with Leo and Tom, I'm getting this book.

    • Apple juice...?

      I saw him at at a conference in Campus Party Spain last month. His story is quite amazing.

      Also scored one of his business cards, best business card ever!

  • ...make a lot of money.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      As opposed to the MakerBot scam artists who just want to give away their rickety, rackety crappity thing? The geek jizz was flying high and fast yesterday when they got 10 million dollars for putting two motors in a box, but this guy writes a book and now money is bad again? Luckily GameboyRMH mopped it all up with his tongue.

    • by deains ( 1726012 )
      Well, he's gotta get food on the table somehow. It's not like he hasn't worked for it...
    • by Seumas ( 6865 )

      Why shouldn't he? That hack, John Markoff, has been making bank off of Mitnick for a couple of decades. How he has a career, still, is fucking beyond me.

    • by sjames ( 1099 )

      He had to do the time based on an illusory image of him, he might as well make some money setting the record strait. Note, I'm not saying he did nothing wrong, just that he didn't do a much wrong as he was convicted of.

  • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Friday August 26, 2011 @02:34PM (#37221574) Homepage

    "All he wanted to do was get into corporate sites, download code, play with the code and then move on to the next target. "

    No, all he wanted to do was steal cellphone service and other services. Mitnick was not some grand hacker, he at that time was simply a petty thief that had skills that others did not. He was after the next big score or what would give him something for nothing.

    Why does everyone paint him to be some kind of leader for freedom and the Hacking Society. Most of us that were in the scene at that time and before did not have much respect for him.

    He is not the Hacker Poster boy. He was treated unfairly in the courts and legal system.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      >He is not the Hacker Poster boy. He was treated unfairly in the courts and legal system.

      And there's your answer. When the government treats someone unfairly and that person's crimes amount to theft and not much else, people will notice that person and will treat him with extra respect for the pain he goes through, deserved or not. It's the same way you treat someone with terminal cancer that beat you up in high school a little better than you really want to.

    • by nomadic ( 141991 )
      He also (and this is the particularly stupid part) was caught, convicted, imprisoned, and then immediately started doing it again when he got out.
    • Maybe a lot of people can empathize with the desire to steal free cell phone service. I know I hate paying those sons of bitches.
    • Most of us that were in the scene at that time and before did not have much respect for him.

      His early exploits weren't much but some of the stuff he did when he was on the run from the FBI were quite impressive. eg. He had a setup that linked through the local cellphone towers that warned him when an FBI-owned cellphone came into his cell. No big deal for a cellphone company to do, but a private citizen...?

  • Ironic (Score:5, Interesting)

    by tekrat ( 242117 ) on Friday August 26, 2011 @02:48PM (#37221670) Homepage Journal

    Ironic that when *normal* people didn't have a computer, hackers were evil geniuses who could whistle into a telephone and launch nuclear missiles. Mitnik was FBI priority number one for a while.

    But now, if a spammer breaks into your PC, zombies it and uses that to do whatever he wants (maybe even launch missles), the FBI hangs up on you if you try and register a complaint.

    Now that *everyone* has a computer, computer crimes are no longer treated as a serious thing.

    So lemme get this straight: Mitnik was a danger because the rest of the world was IGNORANT.

    I have to wonder what the masses did the first guy who brought home fire.

  • "you're in prison and you didn't make any money.", just doing it for.. eh, lulz, gets the autistic card nowadays.

    anyhow, I feel for the guy, just getting your computers taken as a teenager sucks enough(for some stupid shit, not the most stupid but anyways, didn't get charged - 2.5 half years later got my stuff back, the hd didn't work after that so it was goodbye to some hobby coding sources). also the approach taken against mitnick just took the assumption that they couldn't secure their systems and there

  • by Paracelcus ( 151056 ) on Friday August 26, 2011 @03:08PM (#37221828) Journal

    Ain't worth a damn and politicians are (for the most part) the reason for everything that goes wrong in America!

    How a headline hungry, yellow journalistic, irresponsible press can take some petty crook with questionable technical credentials and make a science-fiction supervillan out of him, and the politically ambitious law enforcement officials who want to paint themselves as the superheros of the story at the expense of some ineffectual schlub, (make a toy of him/an example) a behavior that typifies oppressive regimes throughout the world.

    • we found James Risen doing a similar stunt against Wen Ho Lee... Lee was not in prison though , , he wound up suing the newspapers and the government, and winning.

    • by wwphx ( 225607 )
      10-15 years ago, I was working for a police department doing database/network admin work, I went to an FBI meeting on hacking. The agent was covering the history of hacking and started talking about the Cap'n Crunch whistles and the 2600 Hz tone. He commented that he didn't know if it was Hertz or Mega-Hertz, I spoke up and said Hertz, not Mega-Hertz. He then semi-jokingly accused me of being a hacker. The twit didn't know the difference between a tone in the audio range and something that might be in t
  • Zero Cool? ... yo this is Zero Cool! lol
  • "But some people will never let a person like Mitnick let go of the past. In his review of the book, Rich Jaroslovsky, a technology columnist for Bloomberg News shows no sympathy for Mitnick when he pretentiously writes that "genius comes in many forms. Kevin Mitnick has at least two, neither particularly admirable".

    Oh give me a break. Even by slashdot standards this doesn't make sense. He's writing a book about his past. He's trying to make money from his past. A REVIEWER of that book should not ta
  • by MarkvW ( 1037596 ) on Friday August 26, 2011 @04:27PM (#37222500)

    Mitnick presents to me as an excellent case of a person who has rehabilitated himself.

    I'm real happy for him.

  • bundle this book and 9780440222057 as a set (assuming that the publisher has them to sell)

    We could call it the Fox News Bundle!

  • ...written by the guy that nabbed him. "Takedown" was exciting, but a little bit of ego fluff. I read it a decade ago, and perhaps should read it in tandem with Mitnik's side of the story.

    • Better yet, publish it as one of those back-to-back books that you flip one way or the other to have the matched front covers.

  • they wrote things like Gaussian Copula Function code, CDO simulations, and models of mortgage securities for ratings agencies.

    these were at the heart of what enabled the massive fraud of the CDO game during the bubble years of the early 2000s. Ratings agencies built shoddy models, and investment banks 'reverse engineered' and 'gamed' those models. They also payed the ratings-agencies managers to skew the results.

    Out of it all came massive piles of bad mortgage debt, advertised and sold as good debt. This en

"I shall expect a chemical cure for psychopathic behavior by 10 A.M. tomorrow, or I'll have your guts for spaghetti." -- a comic panel by Cotham