Book Review: Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker by Kevin Mitnick

Ghost in the Wires
Kevin Mitnick's autobiography, Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker, reads like a classical tragedy. The hero, Mitnick, resolves as neither good nor evil, but human, displaying traits through both actions and the narration itself that underscore his normalcy. Starting the story with his childhood, Mitnick introduces behaviors and motivations that many readers will quickly recognize in younger versions of themselves or their peers. As his story progresses, Mitnick barrels relentlessly towards disaster, unable to overcome tragic flaws that can only be described as compulsion - to hack, to explore, to conquer – and a delusion of invincibility, the familiar hubris of youth.

From his roots in phone phreaking (rigging telephone systems to receive free calls) at an early age, Mitnick steadily increases the potency of his technical exploits, gaining full access to phone company switches, mastering social engineering, absorbing computer hacking techniques and racing to decipher and conquer newer, more sophisticated operating systems and infrastructures. Hacking targets from General Telephone, to DEC, and eventually Sun Microsystems, Mitnick doggedly hunts larger game, never satisfied with his previous conquests. Though his first stint in prison lead to a brief “clean” period, Mitnick eventually stops even entertaining the idea of not hacking, even after it has caused his marriage to deteriorate and sent him on the run from numerous federal agencies. Like watching the heroine of a slasher flick descend unwittingly into a dark basement, the reader feels the tense burden of omniscience as Kevin’s hacking leads him to greater and greater risks, and as the odds of escape dwindle. Perhaps this tension, the sinking feeling upon watching a boy (who could at the onset have been myself or any of the intrinsically curious technophiles I know) dig his way farther from the safety of society is what made me unable to put this book down.

Something about this account of a life full of strange twists and turns grabbed hold of me, and refused to let go. An earnest honesty comes through as Kevin recounts his exploits; a candor that manages even to be reinforced by his occasional anger and judgment of the authorities and legal system that finally apprehend him. This is a story told by a man neither pretending to be faultless, nor admitting fault. Never does Kevin express remorse for his actions directly, aside from lamenting the stress he brought to his family. However, neither does he shy away from mistakes, or make excuses for his actions. He straightforwardly explains what he did and how he did it, occasionally pausing in an attempt to explain, as best he can, why.

Mitnick writes his story deliberately, taking great pains to make both his life and his hacking exploits accessible and understandable to a non-technical reader. For computer professionals and enthusiasts, he occasionally allows himself a diversion into technical descriptions of some of his most clever intrusions, though security professionals may long for more intricate details. If I felt the lack of anything, it was a deeper insight into Mitnick’s inner monologues as his life progressed. As I read, I found myself constantly wondering what his reasoning must be, how fear weighed against obsession as he continued to hack - even as he hid behind false identities to evade the law. In some ways the nagging questions add to the experience, forcing the reader to engage in constant speculation, and even self-reflection.

Mitnick’s story serves as a much-needed reminder, in the modern resurgence of hacker paranoia, that most successful hacking was, and continues to be, an empire built upon social engineering. The delicate art of quickly building trust and convincing a mark, knowingly or unknowingly, to divulge sensitive information remains the cornerstone of sophisticated hacking operations. The irrationally inflated charges levied against Mitnick upon his final arrest, and the questionable treatment of his constitutional rights during his incarceration and trial underscore the fear of hackers and the confusion and violation they represent in the public mind. We fear what we don’t understand, we fear what we cannot see, and on those charges the public greatly feared Kevin Mitnick.

Those fascinated by the power of information, and the ease with which trust can be gained and exploited in our modern world will find this title an engaging read. Security professionals will enjoy the book on a distinctly different level, as a literal open book on their opponents’ mindset and tactics. Whether remembering the media circus surrounding Kevin Mitnick’s hacker years and trial, or hearing the saga for the first time, technical and non-technical readers alike will be intrigued by a window into the life and mind of the most notorious hacker of our time.

Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker will be officially released on August 15, 2011