- The Fugitive Game: Online with Kevin Mitnick
- Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
- Year: 1997
- Pages: 416
As someone who spends a lot of time reading computer and security news, I’m no stranger to Kevin Metnick. I did an entire paper on social engineering, in fact, and you just know that I at least mentioned Mitnick. If that name has passed too far out of the cultural zeitgeist for you to know, you can do a bit of background reading before continuing this review. In short, Kevin Mitnick was a famous hacker in the mid-90s who was eventually caught by the FBI and served about five years in jail.
There is much myth about Kevin Mitnick, some of it still continuing today, although the public has by and large forgotten about him. There’s the old yarn about how, as a teenager, he hacked his way into NORAD, eventually inspiring the movie Wargames; this, needless to say, is spurious and false.
You may be familiar with another book about Mitnick’s capture; entitled Takedown, it was written by Tsutomu Shimomura and John Markoff. The former is a mysterious security researcher / hacker / spook who somehow assisted in Mitnick’s eventual capture; the latter is a journalist who claimed to know all about Mitnick—that is, in the form of junk articles for the New York Times that more often than not perpetuated Mitnick myths or regurgitated exaggerated government nonsense about the extent of his crimes.
Reading the previous paragraph, you may get the impression that I don’t think very highly of Markoff, and it’s true that from what I know of his Mitnick writings, he seems something of a hack. The Fugitive Game is a book written by another journalist involved in the Mitnick case, one Jonathan Littman, ostensibly to (1) set right some common misconceptions about Mitnick, (2) ask some damning questions about the role of Shimomura and Markoff in Mitnick’s capture, and the dubious legality of their involvement at all; finally, (3) Littman brings to light a new view of Mitnick, based on extensive phone interviews when Mitnick was in hiding. For reasons of which I dare not speculate, Mitnick formed a strange bond with Littman, and was at times surprisingly candid with him. The Mitnick that Littman paints is a relatively harmless nerd, not motivated by profit, and though certainly prolific in the number of systems he penetrated, almost never guilty of the monetary damages that he’s accused of.
I was initially skeptical of The Fugitive Game; the first section, which sets context, introduces a number of hacker personalities, and basically paints the FBI as regulation-skirting doofuses, reads like a bad detective novel. The characters seem exaggerated, almost stereotyped. I narrowly avoided giving up on it, but decided to wait until the promised Mitnick/Littman phone interviews took place. The good news is that the story gets better; the bad news is that the book still fails to be particularly interesting, especially more than a decade after the fact.
Perhaps I’m just too millennial: reading a book about über-l33t h4ck3rz using “high-speed” 14.4Kb modems makes me both giggle and cringe, knowing full well that the readers of 2018 will shake their heads in horror at the thought of a 6Mbps ADSL connection1 Most of the hacking here involves the phone companies: wiretapping, stolen cell phone serial numbers, ISP hacking, &tc.
What’s most interesting about Mitnick is that, as Littman seems to stress, he’s not particular concerned with coding. He’s not really a programmer; Mitnick was most famous for his social engineering: he plucked phone numbers and likely passwords out of corporate dumpsters. He gamed telephone operators into giving up information. He used available tools, like the Berkeley Packet Filter2 to exploit unpatched vulnerabilities in the Unix systems of corporations and ISPs.
The Fugitive Game likely isn’t as dramatic as Takedown; Littman doesn’t seem particularly concerned with hyping Mitnick’s case. He spends a lot more time trying to flesh out Mitnick qua human being, and exposing the gross exaggerations related to his story. I can’t say that the much-anticipated phone interviews with Mitnick were anything to write home about, but I at least credit Littman for writing about Mitnick in a way that fellow computer enthusiasts can appreciate.
- I should point out here that any Swedes reading this probably are; America’s broadband infrastructure sucks, except maybe for the limited-availability Verizon.[↩]
- As an interesting side note, the FBI’s releases about Mitnick’s alleged crimes appeared to indicate that BPF was a proprietary tool, developed for intelligence agencies at a cost of as much as a million dollars; in fact, it was a free tool for Unix.[↩]