“Social engineering” is way-cool hacker slang for conning people into doing what you want them to do. It’s how Kevin Mitnick, once the world’s most-wanted cybercriminal, got unsuspecting employees at phone companies and other high-tech firms to give him inside information that helped him break into computer networks all over the world.
In a sense, the authors of three new books about Mitnick, who was arrested in February 1995 on 23 charges of telephone and computer fraud, are practicing their own brand of social engineering: By cannily casting their work as a high-stakes showdown in cyberspace, they’re hoping to lure readers into buying this dry story of a pasty-faced social misfit who happened to be a computer whiz.
All three books — Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnick, America’s Most Wanted Computer Outlaw — By the Man Who Did It by Tsutomu Shimomura with Johan Markoff; The Fugitive Game: Online with Kevin Mitnick by Jonathan Littman; and The Cyberthief and the Samurai by Jeff Goodell — portray Mitnick as the John Dillinger of the information age and Shimomura, the security expert who helped track him down, as a latter-day Eliot Ness.
But after plowing through each 300-plus-page book, filled with jargon like ”IP spoofing” and ”’sniffer’ programs,” you realize that all this time and research was spent on a guy who never physically harmed anyone, never apparently profited from his scams, and so far has pleaded guilty to only one count of cellular-phone fraud. (Of course, if you’re one of what Mitnick calls the ”idiots,” you’ll believe the cover of Goodell’s book, which reads: ”The World’s Most Notorious Computer Outlaw. Invisible and Unstoppable. Until He Crossed the Wrong Man….”)
That said, I still enjoyed each of these books. And it’s not as if Mitnick is a nobody; he’s a metaphor for the vulnerability of an increasingly computerized world. Orwell was wrong. Mitnick — who is still in prison facing federal charges stemming from past exploits — and his anarchic comrades, who can alter your TRW account, read your E-mail, and tap phone lines, are the real Big Brother.
Of the three, Takedown has been hyped as the most authentic. Markoff, a widely respected high-technology writer for The New York Times, had the advantage of a long-term relationship with Shimomura, a trusted source, and it is his story he and Shimomura tell — not Mitnick’s. But Shimomura, despite his ties to the National Security Agency and other counterintelligence outfits, is, alas, just another brilliant computer geek. His seven-week ”takedown” of Mitnick, which began when Mitnick broke into his computer files, mostly involves riveting stuff like tracing cellular-phone calls.
In contrast, Jonathan Littman didn’t have Shimomura as a source — he had Mitnick. It’s his one ace in what is clearly a bitter rivalry with Markoff (he devotes pages to whining about Markoff’s estimated $2 million book and movie deal), but he pretty much squanders it. Though Littman has better detail about Mitnick and his world, he chooses to write in MTV style — a lot of fast, jerky chapters that tend to confuse more than enlighten.
Surprisingly, Goodell’s paperback is the most entertaining of the lot. Goodell doesn’t have the two key sources, but that may be why his straightforward account works. He writes like an outsider, tracing Mitnick’s rise from the phone-phreak era of the late ’70s and giving the story historical perspective; in contrast, the other authors suffer from self-conscious insiderism, as if their audience consisted only of subscribers to Wired magazine and they wanted to impress them.
Still, the writers all succeed in making a flat story rather absorbing: For that I will tell them what Mitnick told Shimomura when the two finally met in the courtroom: ”I respect your skills.”
The Fugitive Game: B-
The Cyberthief and the Samurai: B+