Book Review: Ghost In the Wires

Surprisingly, for a memoir about a guy who spends most of his time sitting in front of a computer, Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker is a gripping thrill ride. And it’s a testament to Kevin Mitnick and his co-author, William Simon, that it works. In the wrong hands, the same material could easily be boring or overly technical. They found the right balance of action, technical detail, and non-hacking content to keep the story engaging. The book gives you a real sense of the hacking underworld, as well as how surprisingly easy it is to social engineer individuals, companies, and government agencies.

The most surprising part of the story is how little of Mitnick’s exploits were due to what we traditionally think of as computer hacking, and how much was due to social engineering. Mitnick learned to be a master manipulator, and in this book he explains to you how he convinced cops to turn over records, trusted employees to send files to people they just met, and just about anyone to do anything over the phone. If you want to better protect yourself from social engineering, this book is a great primer. It really makes you think about how quick we are to trust someone with a bit of confidence when they know a couple details we assume they would only know if the confidence were warranted.

Mitnick manages to make himself relatable. By including personal details, descriptions of family life, and imagery of his surroundings, he comes across as a regular guy. He compares his hacking activities to an addiction. I can almost buy that. He was getting notoriety, solving interesting puzzles, and probably feeling the same kind of rush that cleptomaniacs feel. It sounds like it could easily become a compulsion if you’re good at it and don’t have a certain moral wavelength turned on.

And I say that last sentence carefully. Because Mitnick (as far as I know and he claims in the book) never did anything especially damaging compared to some of the other well known hackers. He says he wasn’t in it for money or to do harm, but instead to satiate his curiosity. A significant portion of the book concentrates on this fact, and how the media played up his story to make him sound a lot more evil than he deserved. And that apparently affected his prosecution by the government. John Markoff, a well known New York Times reporter at the time, is singled out for particularly incredulous stories.

Yet, my biggest criticism with the book, would be Mitnick’s lack of sympathy for his victims. He spends a lot of time emphasizing how little damage he did, and almost no time apologizing for the damage that he did do. Sure, he may not have sold the source code he stole for a profit. And sure, the people he tricked mostly just had their time wasted. He didn’t actively try to ruin anybody’s life. Yet, mitigating his “work” inevitably cost companies and individual a lot of time. Employee time is money. It probably cost taxpayers millions of dollars investigating, trying him, and catching him. His exploits made people feel unsafe and caused them emotional distress. And he doesn’t seem very sorry. For that reason, I found him especially difficult to root for during the early chapters. Even his “pranks” as a teenager sometimes seemed mean spirited if I were to be on the receiving end of the frustration they caused.

In the end, though, Mitnick won me over. I found his relationship with his mother and grandmother endearing. I think the way he turned his life around after getting out of prison the last time is remarkable. It seems he’s done a lot of good the last twenty years. He’s an example of why people deserve a second chance, and his book is an interesting examination of social engineering and the media-legal system complex.

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