Book Review: Ghost in the Wires

Kevin Mitnick is a legendary hacker who pioneered the use of phone phreaking (gaining access to systems via the phone lines) and social engineering (gaining access to codes for phreaking by chatting with engineers, secretaries and others), and while he was imprisoned for his hacking, he claims never to have done it for profit. He was in it for the fun, the thrill of the activity, and he was energized by the cat-and-mouse games that went on. He was out to prove himself to the world. But the police and FBI were soon hot on his trail, and even though he used his knowledge of the government information system to go into hiding for a time, he eventually was caught.

Ghost in the Wires is Mitnick’s tale of how he came become such a notorious hacker. It’s full of interesting technical talk about the early days of computers, the lack of security at so many sites, and the high intelligence, perseverance and creativity it took for Mitnick and his friends to worm their way through various computer networks. At times, the book is a little too self-serving, and the writing could have been stronger. I was glad his co-writer, Bill Simon, resisted too much technical talk (which Mitnick apparently wanted) because that move makes the book accessible to a wider audience.

I was somewhat familiar with his tale because I have read the WhizzyWig series of graphic novels by Ed Piskor, which is inspired by Mitnick and other early phone phreakers. The two books — WhizzyWig and Ghost in the Wires — are nice companion pieces, and give some insight into the motivation of hackers. While it is true that some hack for financial gain, most early hackers were looking for the thrill of the action, and the thrill of seeing how much they could get away with. At one point, Mitnick even compares hacking to a magic act, where the audience is in awe of what can be accomplished, but they would be stunned by how easy it is once you know the trick. Every system has weaknesses, Mitnick says, and the hacker

Look around your classroom. Notice the kids who are smart, but bored, and who can work their way around a computer or piece of technology with ease. They might be your future hackers. We need to find a way to engage those kids, too, and use their skills in creative ways. Metnick and others were always left out of the social loops, left to their own devices, and in doing so, society created this cadre of intruders. While Metnick went to jail, the story does have a happy ending — he is now a high-paid consultant for many companies seeking to strengthen their data security.

But I wonder about those kids who are not so lucky.

Peace (in the wires),
Kevin

 

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