By Chet Yarbrough
Ghost in the Wires
By Kevin Mitnick, William Simon
Narrated by Ray Porter
John Waters is supposed to have said, “Without obsession, life is nothing”. Kevin Mitnick, in the span of 20 years, was convicted four times for computer hacking (exploiting computer system weaknesses).
Mitnick’s assisted autobiography infers that hacking became Mitnick’s obsession.
“Ghost in the Wires” is a semi-believable story of an extraordinary white-collar criminal that alleges he never financially benefited from spying on people and stealing proprietary software programs from dozens of major corporations and government agencies. His modus operandi was the lie (euphemistically called social engineering) a telephone, and a computer; all of which he used to hack.
Mitnick is a quintessential conman. When he chose an objective like stealing credit information from TRW or making uncharged calls on PacBell’s communication system, he would telephone the “targeted” company. Mitnick would tell the soon-to-be-victimized; he was a company employee and needed access to their software systems to correct a problem at a branch office.
He would “socially engineer” (lie to) company contacts, who would trustingly release proprietary information. The contact would release proprietary information without understanding what they were doing. Mitnick then used that information to steal software or spy on corporate activities. , and allegedly, not use that information to benefit himself. Mitnick generally criticizes Americans for being too trusting.
Mitnick obsessively researched his target. He would learn the lingo of the corporation, identify a real employee, assume his identity, 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 the acquisition of unauthorized information. He would store the stolen information on remote computer systems that he either hacked into or purchased as rented space. Mitnick said he never used the information to benefit himself but only pursued it for the joy of hacking. Really?
Mitnick is a good storyteller but there are glaring weaknesses in his story. Mitnick is obviously smart and articulate but wants a listener to believe he lived on $28,000 per year for 2 out of 10 years of life, moved cross-country at least 4 times in 8 years, lost $11,000 cash, borrowed $5,000, went to college, and never lived on the street. One wonders how he lived and traveled on such a meager income, duping the world and not taking a cent of illegal gotten gains.
Mitnick seems incredibly gullible to believe one of his fellow hackers was not working for the FBI; long before he found corroborating evidence. Mitnick seems always surprised by the betrayal of his “friends” but keeps going back to the well of friendship. Is this personal naiveté or social engineering of those who read or listen to his story?
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. Shimomura pinpointed addresses of anyone 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 on two levels. One, Mitnick reveals tools used by criminals and others who can invade our privacy. And two, one wonders if he/she is being socially engineered by a consummate liar. After all, Mitnick escaped prosecution for 15 years.
The advent of the internet suggests hackers of the world are capable of doing considerably more damage today than when Mitnick practiced his obsession, i.e., Russian interference with the American election process being a prime example.
In the forward to Mitnick’s book, he is praised for his affability by Steve Wozniak (former founder of Apple). One would believe the praise is in part because of Wozniak’s belief in open system software but also because of Mitnick’s software coding expertise and suspect affability.
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. After all, Waters implies life is something if you are obsessive. Without doubt, Mitnick is that.