Thursday, 3 November 2011

Book Review - Ghost in the Wires

Ghost in the Wires
Kevin Mitnick & William L. Simon
Little, Brown - ISBN: 978-0-316-03770-9


In Ghost in the Wires Kevin Mitnick's pleads his case that he is (or at least, was) a "hacker" (one of the good-guys) rather than a "cracker" (a mere criminal) and, if you're interested in how easily gifted conmen manipulate their "marks", his account of being the world's most wanted hacker is a gripping read from start to finish. However, Mitnick is a gifted conman and that's the point - it is easy to be persuaded that he was a benign explorer in a virtual world who was victimised by an ignorant and fearful state, but the truth is not quite so simple.

The fact is, that Mitnick freely acknowledges committing criminal acts and he seems to have had little regard for other people's privacy or rights. Sadly, he demonstrates even less remorse for his actions. Indeed, both during and after his incarceration, Mitnick and his supporters have crafted a persona of an anti-hero - a cybercrusader who was somehow immune from the norms of decent behaviour that constrain most of society. Herein lies the shortcoming with Ghost in the Wires: whilst it is undoubtedly a wonderful account of Mitnick's exploits, it reveals little or nothing of the man or his motives. Although we are given tantalizing glimpses into Mitnick's relationships with friends and family and furnished with banal excuses that he was compelled by some "addiction" (p.40), one is left with the feeling that this is a highly sanitised history, designed to put the best "spin" on his version of events.

Nonetheless, Mitnick's treatment at the hands of the US judicial system is shocking. The unaccountable fear and paranoia demonstrated by the authorities when prosecuting him almost beggars belief and it is difficult to comprehend the impact that months of solitary confinement and incarceration without trial must have had on such a free spirit. Undoubtedly, it is this inhumane treatment that generates sympathy for Mitnick and eclipses his criminal escapades in the eyes of his supporters.

It is difficult not to admire the skill and persistence that Mitnick demonstrated in the pursuit of his goals but it is worth remembering that society needs protection from people who employ such talents to take things that don't belong to them: this is a message that seems to have got lost in Ghost in the Wires. However, it is a fascinating account and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

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