Kevin Mitnick may not be a known name to everyone. Those working in the security departments of major tech companies in the late ’80s like DEC and Sun Microsystems will likely never forget him. He’s known for being one of the most notorious hackers in the country. Some of that reputation was earned; the rest was created by media profiteers, cheesy movies like Hackers, and enemies of Mitnick himself. In “Ghost in the Wires,” Mitnick discredits the false mythology and builds his own with an account of his various hacks throughout his life.
It started out with simply manipulating the public transit system in order to ride around town without paying a fare, but his interest and curiosity quickly moved to computer networks and the secrets that they kept. He’d go on to be dragged through the criminal system as a threat to national security. Laws would be passed using his antics as examples. He specializes in social engineering and eventually wrote the book on lying (The Art of Deception, co-written by William Simon, the same co-author of this book).
Mitnick is pretty blunt in regards to what he did and didn’t do. His ability to remember details is one of the most impressive things about the book. Details like telephone numbers, specific login screens, and the names of people he dealt with are spread throughout the book.
It is a relatively easy read and while being a technical oriented book, it is also pretty light on technical details. In the epilogue, Mitnick and Simon both mention the struggle to balance the storytelling with the technical aspects. The inner geek in me wishes there were a bit more of the tech involved, but what it lacks in tech is made up for with suspense.
Mitnick is a symbol of a counterculture that started in the early ’90s. 2600 Magazine’s coverage of Mitnick’s case and the overwhelming appearance of “Free Kevin” stickers brought a whole new generation to fighting “The Man.” Sure, we all had pocket protectors and taped glasses, but there was a cause to protest. The cause wasn’t that Mitnick’s crimes weren’t crimes; it was that he was being treated unfairly by people who had no idea what he could do. Whistling into a phone to launch nukes isn’t realistic even in a cheesy Hollywood movie, but people in power thought it was possible. Because the book is written from Mitnick’s point of view, there isn’t much in the way of the protests, except for when he raised a bumper sticker to a window for a group of protesters led by 2600′s Emmanuel Goldstein. The photo is one of many featured in the middle of the book.
All in all, Ghost in the Wires does exactly what it’s meant to do. It sets the record straight while balancing the technobabble that might not appeal to a mainstream audience. It documents the exploits of a well-respected member of the hacker community in a way that hasn’t been done before: straight from the horse’s mouth. Geeks will squee over the ease in which Mitnick received source code to major cell phone companies’ phones, while also fidgeting as the FBI chases him across the country.