Hacking the system, because he could
Once the world's most wanted hacker, now a top cybersecurity consultant, Kevin Mitnick tells how curiosity drove him in his new book, Ghost in the Wires
RELAXED, witty and charming, when you see Kevin Mitnick it's hard to imagine he was once the world's most wanted hacker. Now companies line up to have him steal secrets from them as a premier cybersecurity consultant. But it wasn't always that way.
Hackers have made headlines recently with the unprecedented notoriety of collectivesLulzSec and Anonymous, who select their high-profile targets - ranging from the FBI to Sony to NATO - to cause mayhem or make a political statement, in varying proportion.
But long before Google, Twitter and Facebook, computer hackers and "phone phreakers" like Mitnick relied on social cunning and technical prowess to coax confidential information from the agencies that owned it. In Ghost in the Wires Mitnick and his co-author William L. Simon boldly retell the true story of how, and perhaps why, he became one of the FBI's most elusive fugitives.
A loner as a child, Mitnick's primary entertainment was in trying to understand how the world worked. True to hacker culture, his security exploits began with simple curiosity that quickly evolved into obsession. Mitnick began experimenting with tougher and tougher conquests. Before long, he was hooked on gaming the system.
What began with rerouting connections and manipulating phones to make free calls turned into a career of high-tech pranks and ballsy intellectual challenges. Some of Mitnick's successful conquests include Sun, Motorola and Novell, but no one was so thoroughly infiltrated as the phone companies that he used to track those pursuing him. He outfoxed the FBI using a phone company to wiretap the agency - to learn if they were wiretapping him. (He even got doughnuts and labelled them for the FBI in time for a raid on his home.)
His hacking wasn't all high-tech and behind the scenes. Some of the more humorous moments in the book come from Mitnick fooling people into volunteering confidential information. At one point, he went to a police station and found a Los Angeles Police Department yearbook for sale. It included photographs and names of the very undercover squads seeking him. He said he wanted to buy a copy as a gift for his police officer uncle. With no questions asked, for $75 he walked away with a photo guide to his pursuers.
As Mitnick and Simon detail his hacking adventures and life on the lam, they artfully strike a balance between sharing enough technical detail to delight fellow hackers and maintaining a suspenseful plot to keep the less technical among us hooked.
The legend of Kevin Mitnick comes with just as many truths as rumours, and both are meticulously teased out in this seemingly honest autobiography. When it was Mitnick versus the system, he wanted to win just to prove he could. Ghost in the Wires leaves no doubt that he could and did. And the fun of it all might help explain why, today, so many others have followed.
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