Honest book review: Ghost in the wires

The memoir of the most wanted hacker in the United States that will keep you on the edge of your seat!

Also with a dubious amount of self flattery in the first pages — by now I feel this is a pattern.

I was never a book worm, you could almost say the opposite about me. Books usually mean something related to school and most of the learning I do these days is through the Internet. Besides the whole series of the Chronicles of Narnia and a few titles from Stephen King, books just didn’t call out to me. I started reading more often this year as a part of my new year’s resolution.

This book was something else… From start to finish, there was no boring parts, and it kept me on edge the whole time. I loved that. The fact that it is a memoir also increases the excitement: this all happened for real!

Although most of the book is written in a non-technical format, the people that will enjoy it the most will be geeks, so that’s who I’d recommend this book for. Anyone excited about the whole hacking theme in general will find this to be an awesome read, since the book recalls dozens of successful hacking attempts, with special ingenuity in the social engineering part. Mitnick is a brilliant mind when it comes to picking up a whole different persona on the fly, something he assures us to be a trainable skill. Since this was one of the few books I bought in a dead-tree format, I’m definitely going to lend it to my closest geeky friends.

If this is what a good book feels like it, then I might have missed out on reading!

The content

Without going into much disclosure, Kevin’s success at hacking so many different systems is largely attributed to Social Engineering. Most of the book’s history was at a time where people were not very used to hearing about security break-ins, which makes you think things might not be as easy today. Having said that, it doesn’t make me feel less impressed about Mitnick’s ability to compromise remote systems.

Ghost in the Wires also story-tells about the daily life back in the 80’s and 90’s from a technological point of view, which makes you realize how ubiquitous things today were nothing but dreams in that time. For most of the time Kevin used a cellphone, it was the size of a shoe!

There are some amazing moments reported, one of my favorites was when Mitnick knew he was going to get raided by the FBI. He cleaned out every incriminatory evidence and bought a box of doughnuts, which he appropriately labeled ‘FBI Doughnuts’. The following morning, when the FBI agents knocked on his door, they were flabbergasted when they saw no computers and a grinning Mitnick, waiting for them to nob on the doughnuts that he had bought. This story, plus a bunch of pranks he recalls add a very healthy dose of laughter to the book.

If you look up Kevin’s history in a quick Google search, you’ll soon realize that he was locked up several times for his computerized adventures. He mentions the whole episodes and how his family grieved his incarceration, which makes you root for him. Several times, his actions were disclosed through back-stabbing friends, which makes you think just how unlucky he was throughout his life.

Once, while strolling through a hallway at my college, I overheard a few guys laughing after someone mentioned a hacker was able to whistle nuclear launch codes from a telephone. I thought that was pretty random and far-fetched, and just dismissed it as an inside joke between them. Well, it turns out it wasn’t, and it was just me being ignorant. It was a reference to something that happened to Kevin Mitnick at one of his court hearings, and that would become incredibly famous after that.
He had to listen to his prosecutor’s false accusation, who in an attempt to keep him in prison and to scare the public, told the judge that he would be able to do just that: whistle into a phone and launch american nuclear missiles.
For me that is the definite proof that reality is far greater than fiction.

Something just a tad bit annoying

Kevin tells us about his most significant achievements, and to give some context he includes a general idea of how it happened, which most of the times includes some sort of social engineering. These stories are all incredible by themselves, but put together they become somewhat repetitive. Since you need to go through them in order to keep track of what’s happening, be prepared to read through several phone conversations, none of which too long, but tiresome nonetheless. I even think that it was annoying how he was able to weasel himself into becoming trustworthy by hundreds of unsuspecting people, but perhaps the unsuccessful attempts have been withheld, because that would certainly add a bunch more pages to the book.

TL;DR

Even considering the large amount of social engineering episodes that are scattered throughout the book, I still found it a joy to read, and I read it in only 3 days — that’s an average a little over 100 pages a day. I only felt like stopping when changing chapters, never in the middle of one. This was the most enticing and interesting book I have read so far. But since I have many others in the waiting list, it is entirely possible that this title doesn’t hold for long. Time will tell.

I really appreciate you reading this far. As a token of my appreciation, here’s the end of the post.

GT