Title: Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker, by Kevin Mitnick
Completed: February 10, 2012 (#11)
Recommendation: A bad book. (Sorry, but A Superfluous Man has to economize on pejorative adjectives today. After all, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is coming up next…)
To judge from the titles of their memoirs, computer hackers and the security experts who “hunt” them evidently fall somewhere on the spectrum of egotism between “prima donna” and “wide receiver.”
For those with an inkling that the topic of computer hackery may be of interest, consider scrounging up a used copy of computer security expert Tsutomu Shimomura and New York Times journalist John Markoff’s Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnick, America’s Most Wanted Computer Outlaw–By the Man Who Did It, a passably diverting introduction to the subject that this reviewer recalls having read when first released in 1996. However, if the Reader would like to cut past the chase scene and directly to the 413-page Apologia Pro Vita Sua of a glorified prank caller, why, by all means, click on Mr. Mitnick’s book.
Let us say first that it is not Mr. Mitnick’s almost total unconsciousness of culpability that renders Ghost in the Wires such an execrable book. Other impenitent criminals continue to astonish and amuse years after their debt to society has been “paid”–Bill “I wish that we’d done more” Ayers or Orenthal James “If I did it, here’s how it happened” Simpson spring unbidden to mind in this connection. Martin Luther would be proud of those two: “Sin boldly, Juice!”
While blessed with a certain Artful Dodger-like street smarts and, of course, a facility with gadgetry (telephones, actually, as much as computers), Mr. Mitnick simply does not have a compelling story to tell. He is openly proud of his former life–duping unsuspecting public utilities employees through “social engineering” (i.e., lying) to obtain unreleased source code for mobile phones is a typical exploit. He justifies his relentless “attacks” on corporate servers with a cybernetic equivalent of George Mallory’s “because it’s there” quip: “I wasn’t in it for the money, see, I was in it for the rush that only tricking just-above-the-poverty-line DMV employees can bring.” If Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor, Mr. Mitnick pestered the bored to amuse the nerds. Bravo, Mr. Mitnick.
The book is written in the conversational style that is de rigueur for American memoirs these days, including those of eminent personages, such as former Vice-President Dick Cheney’s In My Time. Mr. Mitnick’s book is, however, quite obviously primarily the work of his ghostwriter, which results in odd sentences such as:
Again my curious, uncanny memory for phone numbers came in handy.
(The first and let us hope last time that the Reader will encounter the word “uncanny” in a first-person sentence on this website.)
One’s impression of Mr. Mitnick’s book is cemented by his lamely earnest attempts to gin up a civil libertarian ethos to justify his criminal hobby:
While I was in the general population at the Metropolitan Detention Center, a fellow prisoner, a Colombian drug lord, offered to pay me $5 million cash if I could hack into Sentry, the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ computer system, and get him released. I played along to keep on friendly terms with him, but I had absolutely no intention of going down that road.
Agent Thomas shouts, “You’re under arrest!” Not like on television: no one bothers to read me my Miranda rights.
I didn’t have any knowledge of anyone who had hacked into government or military systems, but even so, it was against my ethical and moral principles to become a snitch for the government.
This was widely seen as a blatant denial of my constitutional rights. According to my attorney, no one in the history of the United States had ever been refused a bail hearing. Not the notorious impostor and escape artist Frank Abagnale Jr. Not the serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. Not even the crazed stalker and would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley Jr.
E Basta! Nothing more need be said about Mr. Mitnick’s life and times. Ignore this book.