By Chet Yarbrough
By Kevin Mitnick, William Simon
Narrated by Ray Porter
John Waters is supposed to have said, “Without obsession, life is nothing”. Kevin Mitnick’s assisted autobiography infers that hacking became his obsession. In the span of 20 years, Kevin Mitnick was convicted four times for hacking (seeking or exploiting computer system weaknesses).
“Ghost in the Wires” is a semi-believable story. It is semi-believable because it is told by a convicted liar. It is a story of an extraordinary white-collar criminal that alleges he never financially benefited from spying on people or stealing proprietary software programs from dozens of major corporations and government agencies.
Mitnick’s modus operandi was the lie, euphemistically called social engineering. Mitnick used social engineering, a telephone, and a computer to spy on the FBI and steal telephone time and proprietary software from some of the biggest organizations in the world.
Mitnick is a quintessential con-man. When he chose an objective like stealing credit information from TRW or making uncharged calls on PacBell’s communication system, he would telephone the respective company to begin his con. Mitnick would tell the soon-to-be-victimized; he was a company employee and needed access to their computer network to correct a problem at a branch office. He would “socially engineer” the listener to release proprietary information and then use that information to steal software or spy on organization activities. Mitnick generally criticizes Americans for being too trusting.
Mitnick obsessively researched his target. He would learn the lingo of the organization’s IT department, identify a real employee that he would become, and then begin his telephone con with a person that would have access to proprietary information. Mitnick argues that he was thrilled by the chase and acquisition of unauthorized information. He would store purloined information on remote computer systems that he either hacked into or purchased as rented space. Mitnick said he never used hacked information to financially benefit himself; i.e. he only conned the gullible for the joy of hacking and the thrill of improved skill.
Mitnick is obviously smart and articulate but how does one believe he lived on $28,000 a year, working only 2 out of 10 years of life, moving cross-country at least 4 times in 8 years, losing $11,000 cash, borrowing $5,000, going to college, never living on the street, but always capable of renting an apartment, acquiring tools for cons, and getting a technical college degree? One wonders how he lived and traveled on such a meager income; duping the world; without taking a cent of illegally gotten gains.
Also, in “Ghost in the Machine”, Mitnick seems as gullible as his victims to believe one of his fellow hackers was not working for the FBI long before he found corroborating evidence. Mitnick is always surprised by the betrayal of “friends” but keeps going back to the well of their friendship.
Finally, the competence of the FBI seems exaggerated when Mitnick is caught by a simple search done by Shimomura, a security consultant, when he found that Mitnick was somewhere in Raleigh, North Carolina. Shimomura simply screened all telephone communication in Mitnick’s area to pinpoint addresses of anyone that was on the phone for more than 30 minutes at one time. Mitnick was the only person that fit that criterion.
Mitnick’s story makes one uncomfortable because it reveals tools used by criminals to invade one’s privacy. Mitnick successfully scammed the world for nearly 15 years before serving a 5 year prison sentence. The advent of the internet suggests hackers of the world are capable of doing considerably more damage today than when Mitnick practiced his obsession.
Today, cyber crime extends to governments spying on governments and interfering in the politics of sovereign nations. Mitnicks’ heuristic story of hacking is more terrifying when seen in the context of government subsidization.
In the forward to Mitnick’s book, he is praised for his affability by Steve Wozniak (former co-founder of Apple). One would believe the praise is in part because of Wozniak’s belief in open system software but also because of his appreciation of Mitnick’s software coding skill.
In Mitnick’s afterword, it appears Mitnick’s life as a criminal made him both famous and financially secure. One wonders, how much more Mitnick could have accomplished without breaking the law.
The euphemism of “social engineering” obscures the meaning of lies that victimize the public and threaten cultures’ stability. The underlying truth in Mitnick’s story is that obsession can be good or bad, depending on one’s inclination.