High-profile hacker Kevin Mitnick once coded and charmed his way through unbelievable thickets of corporate and government security, then defended himself by saying he did it all out of curiosity. His memoir, Ghost In The Wires: My Adventures As The World’s Most Wanted Hacker, fleshes out this defense and feeds his version of what he calls “the Myth” without apologizing for the damage he did.
An early interest in ham radio led Mitnick into the world of “phone phreaking,” hacking into local and national telephone companies to get unlisted numbers or make unpaid long-distance calls. His accomplishments, including hacking into the DMV and digging up Bruce Springsteen’s unlisted number, impressed fellow phreakers, but got him in hot water at a succession of schools and jobs, where he was unable to resist the temptation to program while he worked. Eventually, he landed in the juvenile court system—where he promptly reprogrammed the pay phone. After his release, when authorities nearly busted him for associating with other hackers (a parole violation) while he was working as a private investigator’s assistant, Mitnick fled, assuming a series of identities as corporate IT guys from Denver to Raleigh, all while continuing to hack into cell-phone companies all over the world.
Ever the gleeful showoff, Mitnick presents in Ghost In The Wires his brag-list of corporations fooled, and breaks up the story with dense technical explanations of the workarounds he found. Though briefly sorry for the trials his first wife suffered as a result of his illegal activity, he mostly wants praise for his arsenal of tricks, plus a hair-tousling for what he believes to have been a victimless crime, committed while “enduring” the harassment of law enforcement.
What’s surprising about his jargon-heavy explanation is that his best trick isn’t even technology-based: Over and over, he uses the term “social engineering” for the set of skills that allowed him to access proprietary information from everyone from Motorola to the DMV. Again, he has no remorse over the P.T. Barnum act that involved impersonating hundreds of people over the phone and in person to get what he wanted. His pleasure in this long-distance con artistry, sweet-talking clueless admins into giving him access he couldn’t show credentials for, that suggests Mitnick learned nothing from his tangles with law enforcement. Regret is unlikely from a man who maintains he’s innocent because he never resorted to “Ivan Boesky hacking” (after a chance encounter with the fraudster himself, who couldn’t believe Mitnick never profited from his exploits). But his grievance that inaccurate media hype and corporate greed led to a harsher-than-necessary punishment for his actions points to the suspicion that reporters and judges just didn’t receive his gift of gab as he’d hoped.