Mitnick's Malice, Shimomura's Chivalry

Three books on the celebrated hacker case debunk one another's myths

Topics: Business, Books,

 

I. T h e T w o P i c t u r e s


Thick glasses, double chin, frowning lips and a bitter stare: Kevin Mitnick’s 1989 mugshot is forbidding — a hacker gargoyle. By the time of Mitnick’s most recent arrest, in February, 1995, the photo had appeared twice on the front page of the New York Times.

No one made Mitnick into a hacker; that was his own choice and responsibility. But the media turned his trespasses into legend. The Times turned that little photo into a receptacle for all its readers’ projections of digital-age paranoia — an icon of junk-food-fed, anti-social computer thievery.

Who might exorcize this demon? How about a young, Japanese-born physicist, ski bum and computer-security expert, revealed in photos as an elfin young man with long black hair — in short, a wizard like Tsutomu Shimomura?

When Mitnick apparently broke into Shimomura’s computer system on Christmas Day, 1994, he threw down a challenge that would lead to his capture two months later. If Mitnick was “the dark-side hacker” (as he’s called in “Cyberpunk,” until recently his only in-depth portrait), then his nemesis, Shimomura, stepped right out of central casting into the role of a Jedi knight.

The story of the Mitnick manhunt, recounted by veteran computer reporter and “Cyberpunk” co-author
John Markoff, broke in the New York Times on February 16, 1995 — setting off a different kind of chase, one involving agents and deals and contracts. This month, the stores will be crowded with the fruits of that second hunt — a complementary trio of books, each, “Rashomon”-like, providing a different angle of vision on the Mitnick saga.

Individually, these volumes are dissatisfyingly incomplete. Put them together, though, and they debunk the very media-legend stereotypes that sold each of the authors’ contracts. Mitnick is no demon; Shimomura is no wizard. Crime and punishment online is a lot harder to score than a Dungeons-and-Dragons-style duel.

 

II. T h e T h r e e B o o k s



Of the trio, the most eagerly awaited, heavily promoted and apparently most lucrative is the collaboration between Shimomura and Markoff. (Trade reports peg its advance at around $700,000, with additional movie and game deals bringing the tab near $2 million.) Its title reads like a late night marketing-meeting compromise that everyone got to tack a few words onto: “Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnick, America’s Most Wanted Computer Outlaw — By the Man Who Did It.”

This force-fed title presages an awkwardness, and an arrogance, that the book, alas, fully delivers on. By the end of “Takedown,” Shimomura has shredded his own courtly image and replaced it with a picture of near-inhuman condescension.

Where “Takedown” provides the view from Shimomura’s corner, “The Fugitive Game: Online with Kevin Mitnick” portrays events from the quarry’s point of view, as recorded by Jonathan Littman, a journalist who was in telephone contact with Mitnick through most of the chase. (Littman has also accused Markoff of being not only an observer but a participant in the Mitnick manhunt.)

More effective in humanizing Mitnick than any of Littman’s exhaustively reported phone conversations are “The Fugitive Game’s” photos. By juxtaposing the now-familiar mugshot gargoyle with a more recent snapshot of a slimmer, amiable regular guy in jeans and a T-shirt, “The Fugitive Game” effectively undermines our natural revulsion to the earlier picture. It embarrasses us into a less knee-jerk, more even-tempered view.

A third volume, a quickie paperback by writer Jeff Goodell with the hype-laden title “The Cyberthief and the Samurai,” offers far less inside detail but somewhat more context, coherence and chronological logic than its competitors.

With this much verbiage and talent dedicated to it, you’d think the Mitnick story would finally emerge with some clarity. Instead, the journalistic free-for-all only ends up muddying the biggest question of the story: Just how dangerous was Mitnick, and how damaging were his exploits?

 

III. T h e H e i n o u s C r i m e s


Hyperion took out an ad in Publisher’s Weekly for “Takedown” that reprinted the Mitnick mug yet again with these words: “He could have crippled the world. Only one man could stop him. Shimomura.”

“Crippled the world”? Huh?

“Takedown” summarizes Mitnick’s wrongdoings as “reading other people’s mail and stealing their software.” These are certainly immoral and almost certainly criminal acts. I don’t want Kevin Mitnick reading my e-mail — no doubt neither do you. If I were Markoff or Shimomura I’d be pretty mad to find him rummaging around my hard disk, too.

But, as Littman persuasively argues, it’s hard to see what deep national threat Mitnick posed. Among the files he allegedly pilfered from Shimomura’s computer and stashed at various online locations — including accounts he hacked into on the WELL and Netcom — investigators found a big list of Netcom customers’ credit card numbers. That sounds scary. But there’s no evidence Mitnick ever used any of them, and it turns out that copies of this list had apparently been floating around the hacker underground for months.

Mitnick is also accused of stealing proprietary cellular-phone software systems, and that’s of understandable import to company officials. But how do you calculate this sort of damage in dollar figures? Think back on your last few software purchases and “upgrades” and you’ll recall how arbitrary the pricing of “intellectual property” can be.

Shimomura scoffs at the argument that Mitnick was simply a curiosity-driven hacker; he finds no “higher moral purpose” in Mitnick’s exploits — probably because there is none. On the other hand, Mitnick never seems to have made a cent from his hacking, and never escalated from electronic harassment and snooping toward any kind of violence to property or people. If this is how “the dark-side hacker” hacks, we can all breathe a little more easily.

Mitnick seems to have pursued his telecommunications trespassing out of some kind of compulsion (after one of his earlier convictions, he got some minor breaks by accepting a diagnosis of “computer addiction”). Most readers are likely to conclude that he deserves some sort of jail sentence. But did he need to be turned into a demon — a posterboy for technophobic paranoia?

When we embrace reductive pictures for complex issues, we lose the chance to assess what’s really at stake. Hypnotized by visions of duels between demons and wizards, we lose track of today’s far more important conflict over computer security — the battle for privacy and freedom on the electronic networks of the future.

 

IV. T h e R e a l T h r e a t

“Takedown’s” most valuable contribution to the public debate is Shimomura’s careful explanation of how hard it is to achieve thorough security on the Internet — which was designed as an open network for collaborative research rather than a secure framework for online commerce. The greatest weaknesses, he convincingly maintains, are human rather than technological.

The firewalls most corporations have built around their sites are like digital Maginot lines, he suggests. They lull their owners into a false sense of high-tech safety, while the Mitnicks of the world saunter right past the defenses, employing the low-tech con-artist techniques they call “social engineering.” (Mitnick’s no technical genius, it seems — one incident in Goodell’s book suggests that in autumn of 1994 he didn’t even know what the World Wide Web is — but he has a gift for getting people to divulge passwords and other secrets over the phone.)

Shimomura, touched by something of a hacker spirit himself, has nothing but contempt for institutions and bureaucracies. It’s amusing to compare the passages in “The Fugitive Game” that darkly speculate about Shimomura’s connections to the National Security Agency with the sections of “Takedown” in which Shimomura fumes about all the red tape that’s delaying his basic research grant from the NSA. But when Shimomura criticizes the performance of the law-enforcement authorities he works with, he has a point.

Mitnick’s mayhem, in the end, seems far less terrifying than the ignorance and incompetence displayed by most of the officials who are fumblingly trying to capture him. That ordinary citizens might be easily spooked by shadowy visions of uber-hackers is understandable; that the Feds in charge of prosecuting computer crimes don’t have a more sophisticated understanding of technology is inexcusable.

Through the Clipper Chip, the digital telephony bill and other initiatives, the government has recently sought greatly expanded powers of electronic surveillance: essentially, it wants an open back door into all future networks. “Takedown” suggests that, if legislators create such a door, it’s far more likely to be jimmied by the Mitnicks of the future than to give the rest of us an easier night’s sleep. It’s the legal equivalent of an Internet firewall — providing the appearance of better security while actually opening the possibility of greater mischief.

Meanwhile, the government has blocked the dissemination of the one technology that Shimomura says could make the Net a more private place — digital encryption, a kind of encoding that safely hides one’s data from Mitnicks and gumshoes alike.

 

V. T h e B i g G a m e

It would be great to think that the Mitnick-book overkill would teach the public more about the importance of online privacy and the nature of true computer security. More likely, it will simply cement some popular myths: there are some creepy, dangerous, overweight hackers out there — and we’d better find some valiant code warriors to protect us from them.

Both “The Fugitive Game” and “Takedown,” with its martial-arts-derived title, envision the Mitnick story as a gaming bout — a kind of intellectual pro-wrestling event with the good and bad participants plainly marked. Mitnick himself put a seal on that image with his courtroom comment to Shimomura: “Tsutomu, I respect your skills.”

Yet the story’s final irony is that this game isn’t the one that matters most. It’s small potatoes next to the one the books themselves are playing: the public-relations game.

The fine suspense of computer-file reconstruction and cellular phone-line tracing pales next to the high drama of self-mythologizing and public-image manipulation. The competition online may have determined whether Mitnick could be found and captured (right now, he’s awaiting trial in Los Angeles, after a plea-bargain settled charges in North Carolina, where he was caught). But the competition in the media will determine how the story is ultimately seen: hero slays monster? or the system catches up with romantic outlaw?

In this game, Shimomura’s secret weapon isn’t his Unix wizardry — it’s his relationship with a New York Times reporter, who snatched him from the obscurity of the San Diego Supercomputer Center and helped transform him into a digital superhero. Every superhero has a vulnerability, of course, and Shimomura’s is his own arrogance. “Takedown” may alienate the public from him as efficiently as the original Times coverage endeared him. (Some of the early coverage of “Takedown” already shows signs of this.)

But this game has just begun, and its real showdown will only unfold should a Mitnick vs. Shimomura movie get made. In the forging of popular myth, Hollywood is always the final battleground.

Of course, given the mediocre box-office record of last year’s “cyber”-movies, we may never see a “Catching Kevin.” And even if we do, given the movie industry’s dim record of faithfully representing the digital world on screen, the resulting film isn’t likely to bear much resemblance to anyone’s version of the story’s reality — Mitnick’s or Shimomura’s, Markoff’s or Littman’s or Goodell’s, mine or yours.

Something tells me, though, that if Kevin Mitnick ever does make it to the big screen, that mugshot gargoyle is going to grimace at us yet again.

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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