Monday, July 04, 2011

"Ghost in the Wires" by Kevin Mitnick and William L. Simon

I don't usually write book reviews on my blog (if I feel the desire to write something it's usually as Amazon.com reviews) but Kevin Mitnick's memoir is too good for that. Finally, we get to hear his side of his life story (or at least his life as a hacker and fugitive).

The chase to capture Mitnick has already been chronicled by others (with varying degrees of accuracy) in Takedown: the Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnik, America's Most Wanted Man and The Fugitive Game but we haven't heard directly from Mitnick before (probably because of the statute of limitations).

I didn't really enjoy Mitnick's two post-incarceration books: The Art of Deception and The Art of Intrusion (although the latter was better than the former). They are interesting books if you know little about hacking (and social engineering), but what was missing was Mitnick's actual story.

Now, with Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker we finally get to hear the story of Mitnick's amazing hacking, phone phreaking, identity theft, stealing of company source code, and tale of being a fugitive from the man himself.

The book does not disappoint.

As a simple narrative it's a fascinating look into the life of someone who was constantly looking over his shoulder (literally and electronically) because he knew he was being tracked, but who just couldn't stop breaking into computers, purloining source code, hacking telephone switches, eavesdropping on calls and more.

The book goes some way to explain the utter compulsion a hacker of Mitnick's type feels. He doesn't hack for money, he just does it because he can, because he wants to win prizes that others wouldn't really value (source code to telephones that he doesn't even own, for example), and because of the feeling of power that comes from manipulating people, computers and networks.

On a technical level the book has plenty of realistic details of how he hacked companies like Sun, Motorola, Nokia and more, details of phreaking through Pac Bell, AT&T and other phone systems and how he worked on exploits for various operating systems. The technical details can easily be skipped if you are not interested in them.

What will probably most surprise people is how much social engineering Mitnick did, and how ballsy he was. At one point he fakes a Japanese accent and poor grammar to trick an employee of NEC into giving him source code. Over and again he calls employees of major firms, the DMV, the Social Security Administration and more and tricks them into giving him dial up access, passwords, and user accounts. He even gets one company to mail him special EPROMs so he can hack a cell phone.

He constantly keeps track of law enforcement through reading of email, listening to phone calls, and voice mails, and by using a modified radio to listen to nearby FBI and police so he can check whether the net is tightening on him. While in Las Vegas he forces law enforcement to stop using encrypted radio (by blocking their transmissions) so he can listen to conversations sent in the clear.

I thoroughly recommend this book if you want to understand the life and mind of a 1980s/1990s hacker who did it for the power trip and bent his whole life around the trip. Fascinating, well written and compelling.

PS And now the full disclosure bit. I got an email from the publisher offering me a pre-release copy. There were no conditions attached.

3 comments:

zzz said...

Hi,
First heard about Mitnick , way back in 2002. But I am not sure when this book will reach India.
Yogesh.

twitz0r said...

I've always been fascinated by Mitnick's work since I was a kid, I'm definitely getting this new book, got his other books as well.

David Cotton said...

I loved 'Takedown', but was rather concerned about the accuracy of the events detailed within. For one thing the tone was rather self-aggrandising. It'll be good to read Mitnick's life in his own words.

One question though: how believable (and accurate) is his own story - does he come across as being a trustworthy narrator?