Manhunt On The Info Highway


The Pursuit and Capture of Keven Mitnick, America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw -- by the Man Who Did It

By Tsutomu Shimomura with John Markoff

Hyperion -- 324pp -- $24.95


Online with Kevin Mitnick

By Jonathan Littman

Little, Brown -- 383pp -- $23.95

Why does the world need two well-written, fast-moving books about the same course of events--the pursuit and capture a year ago of America's most-wanted computer hacker? Because these accounts actually complement each other. Jonathan Littman's The Fugitive Game and Takedown, by Tsutomu Shimomura with John Markoff, might have overlapped to the point of overkill. Instead, each fleshes out the other, making them well worth reading in tandem.

The focus of both books is Kevin Mitnick, a thirtysomething technical wizard with a reputation for being the most dangerous and unrepentant hacker in cyberspace. More than a decade of often overheated press accounts have made Mitnick's hacking skills legendary--whether used to crack a central-office telephone switch, scam free cellular-phone calls, or, most notoriously, getting into almost any computer on the Internet.

For the most part, Mitnick used those skills to pull relatively harmless and sometimes inspired pranks, such as inflating an enemy's phone bill by $30,000. Arguably more serious was his nabbing the source code for Digital Equipment Corp.'s VMS operating system. Through it all, though, his main gift seems to have been what hackers call social engineering--talking his way into a telephone company office, say, to obtain computer passwords and other secrets.

As the events described here began to unfold in early 1994, Mitnick was on the lam, having disappeared while on probation two years before. He had fled the Los Angeles area, where he had grown up, but he was still making himself heard and felt throughout cyberspace, contacting fellow hackers, taunting his pursuers with bogus E-mail, and making late-night calls from a rigged cell phone.

One of those he telephoned frequently was Littman, a journalist who was steeped in the underground computer culture and who, Mitnick had learned by surreptitiously reading Littman's E-mail, was preparing a story about it for Playboy. Using his hacker skills to hide his whereabouts and avoid possible wiretaps, Mitnick made dozens of calls to Littman beginning in May, 1994. Mitnick found Littman sympathetic and hoped the writer would help the world better understand him. Mitnick vehemently denied the worst capers attributed to him, such as breaking into U.S. air-defense computers in 1979. Most of all, he sought to erase his FBI-fostered image as an "electronic terrorist" who stole money from computer nets and who might even remotely launch nuclear missiles.

That Playboy article might have been all that got written, but, thanks to intervening events, we have two books. On Christmas Day, 1994, Mitnick allegedly broke into a computer run by Shimomura, a computer-security expert at the University of California at San Diego. In less than two months, even as Mitnick continued calling Littman, Shimomura used his own considerable skills to track Mitnick down so that the FBI could arrest him. At that point, Littman and Shimomura each began to write their books. Shimomura chose as his co-author John Markoff, a reporter for The New York Times who had discussed Mitnick with Littman and written extensively about the hacker. The upshot is that the three authors and their two stories became entangled, which is why the books are best read together.

Far from "flaming" Mitnick, Littman goes to considerable pains, including midnight telephone assignations at prearranged phone booths, to determine just what makes the hacker tick. Among his revealing answers: Mitnick isn't motivated by money but by a desire for power--power over machines and, through them, over people.

The final hunt for Mitnick is best described by Shimomura and Markoff who, unlike Littman, were there. Unfortunately, most of the action consists of Shimomura and his antihacker team probing the Internet from their computer screens, eating fast food, and jumping in and out of rental cars--not the most heart-stopping stuff. Still, he and Markoff have done a good job of making many technicalities accessible and conveying a sense of hot pursuit.

Littman tries to have the final say, mainly by questioning his competitors' motives. As other writers have done, he asks whether Markoff violated journalistic ethics by directly helping in the hunt for Mitnick. What's more, Littman accuses the reporter of having used his Times stories about Mitnick's capture to hype the hacker's profile and thereby win a larger advance and better movie deal for the book he intended to write with Shimomura. Markoff, in a letter printed in Littman's book, denies both charges.

Littman offers another twist: He speculates that Shimomura may have been a spook secretly employed by a government agency, not just a do-gooder academic. Even if his conjectures are overblown, Littman's is the more adventurous of the books, since it tries to probe beneath the sensationalism surrounding Mitnick and computer hacking.

Inadvertently, perhaps, both books describe an America worthy of Thomas Pynchon. As in that author's Gravity's Rainbow, Mitnick and Shimomura live in a world that's chock-full of brand names, rife with technology, flooded with electronic signals, and fraught with paranoia. Shimomura, for instance, never goes Rollerblading without a cell phone in his fanny pack. Beepers constantly interrupt the phone calls of people who are simultaneously staring at computer screens or fax machines. Any E-mail, it seems, may be a prank by Mitnick or a plant by the FBI. If there's one message that comes through loud and clear, it's that cyberspace is a world of mirrors and ever-shifting identities, of which Mitnick is one of the most fascinating.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.