What I know about programming, telephone phreaking, and root directories could fit in a thimble. I wouldn’t know how to crack a telecommunication system if my life depended on it … it’s all I can do to learn the features of my cell phone. But I sure know a page turner when I read one. The best part about Kevin Mitnick’s book is that you don’t have to have a Computer Science degree to enjoy it. Most interesting to me isn’t Mitnick’s discussion of computers or telecommunications: it’s about “social engineering.” He describes how he got passwords, codes and phone numbers by simply asking for them. Apparently if you know the lingo, can drop a few key names and play the part of a trusted member of the group, the world is your oyster, or at least your database. His best stories were the ones where he described how ingeniously he finagled the passwords, not necessarily what he intended to do with them. His message is that even if a company has spent millions of dollars protecting its information, it means nothing if the people answering the phones are friendly, trusting, easily charmed and eager to be helpful. Like taking candy from a baby. Did this guy ever feel guilty about betraying that trust? I don’t think so.
His escapades started out innocuously enough: figuring out how to get free bus rides all over the city. He was 12. Then there were a few hilarious teenage pranks diverting the loud speaker at the McDonald’s Drive-in to his own broadcast. You can imagine the possibilities for mischief there. His fascination grew. He spent time in Juvenile Detention putting his long- suffering mother and grandmother through much heart ache. While I wanted to yell at him the whole time to just knock it off, I knew he couldn’t. He asserts that hacking is an addiction. I believe him. I don’t think Mrs. Mitnick could have raised him to be different.
Much of the book is about his life running from city to city using fake IDs, looking over his shoulder, tapping phones to detect if the Feds were on to him, always hacking into bigger and seemingly more secure targets and taking greater risks. That risk taking was his adrenaline, and as the Feds figured out where he was and closed in on him, my pages turned faster.
Kevin Mitnick has been a household name in my house for years. While some kids follow the careers of sports stars, astronauts and pop artists, my son followed Kevin Mitnick as a teen and attended a convention in New York City in 2002 returning with those “Free Kevin” buttons. Oh dear. Once Mitnick completed his five year prison sentence, he started speaking at conferences and signing copies of his books. We even have a signed copy (The Art of Intrusion) in our bookcase at home.
Mitnick now lives among the law-abiding and works for the very companies he used to hack. He finds gaps in their security and recommends solutions so even he can’t get in. He doesn’t advocate that his followers become hackers but rather speaks on the topic of how one can protect himself from hackers. While his safety tips are useful albeit a little routine, you can bet it’s the “social engineering” stories that attract his many followers.