Genius comes in many forms. Kevin Mitnick has at least two, neither particularly admirable.
As he portrays himself in “Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker,” Mitnick possesses a rare ability to penetrate sophisticated computer systems. Even greater than his technical skills, it turns out, is his ability to manipulate people, particularly the corporate drones who held the door open for his invasions.
Time and again, armed with little more than the name of a legitimate employee and a few bits of company jargon, Mitnick was able to con people into delivering astonishing rewards: software source codes, lists of passwords, access to supposedly hardened systems. His book is a fascinating and often appalling tour of the ways in which human stupidity can trump human ingenuity -- as well as an absorbing account of the author’s activities and eventual capture.
In the years since his 2000 release from federal prison, Mitnick has become a computer-security consultant and speaker. Still, he can’t hide a whiff of -- pride? nostalgia? -- for the depredations that landed him in the clink.
He got started early, figuring out how to game the Los Angeles bus system as an alienated 1970s teenager before graduating into phone phreaking, manipulating the telephone system into serving up endless free long-distance minutes. (The book’s foreword is written by another former phone phreak whose life took a decidedly different course: Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Inc.)
In time, Mitnick graduated to out-and-out hacking, and the rise of PCs, wireless phones and the Internet opened enormous new vistas for his activities. He mastered the art of “tailgating,” following a pack of employees into a supposedly secure building, and honed his talent for conning people.
In a typical episode, he tricks a Pacific Bell Telephone Co. security employee into confirming that wiretaps have been placed on his father’s lines, then gains the ability to listen in on other taps by figuring out that the phone company never changed the “12345678” default password set by the equipment manufacturer.
By his own account, his accomplishments -- if they can be called that -- included stealing the code used on Digital Equipment Corp. and Sun Microsystems computers and Motorola and Nokia wireless phones, gaining access to the telephone company’s customer and billing records, hacking into the California Department of Motor Vehicles and even intercepting traffic from law-enforcement agencies.
Just for the Thrill
Mitnick insists he never attempted to profit from his activities: His principal motivations were to prove his prowess and, later, to keep tabs on those pursuing him.
Law-enforcement officials were continually puzzled over his motivations, searching for what he says was nonexistent evidence that he was selling information.
“Apparently, it never occurred to any of them that I might be doing it just for the challenge,” he says. For them, “hacking made no sense if there wasn’t money being made.”
It wasn’t those exploits, though, that turned him into the wanted-poster boy for the Internet age. The honor for that, in his telling, goes to what he calls wildly untrue allegations -- that he hacked into Norad, wiretapped the FBI, and cyber-stalked actress Kristy McNichol -- some of which wound up in a page-one New York Times article.
Eventually, his hubris led him to cross paths with computer-security expert Tsutomu Shimomura, whose assistance to federal investigators led to his 1995 arrest, later documented in Shimomura’s book “Takedown.”
Guilty as Charged
Let Mitnick be indignant at his press coverage; “Ghost in the Wires” provides more than enough examples of his guilt, in human relations even more than with computers. His book is full of sad people he treats badly, starting with his almost pathologically supportive mother and, most notably, his wife, who loses him to his computer pursuits, then takes up with his closest friend and hacking partner, Lewis De Payne.
It’s a mark of Mitnick’s obsession that this betrayal wasn’t enough to prevent him from renewing his hacking partnership with DePayne. In the end, “Ghost in the Wires” provides ample evidence that the line between genius and illness can be a thin one.
“Ghost in the Wires” is published by Little, Brown (413 pages, $25.99). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is the technology columnist for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)