So Mitnick finally tells his own side of the story, which I had previously only read about in the Markoff/Hafner book Cyberpunk. Many people have statSo Mitnick finally tells his own side of the story, which I had previously only read about in the Markoff/Hafner book Cyberpunk. Many people have stated that Mitnick is a sociopath and an arrogant jerk. I don't believe he's a sociopath, but without a doubt, he is compulsive, and freely admits that in his autobiography. Many are quick to dismiss him as a garden-variety con man, as many of his exploits involved conning telecom hapless employees by posing as a fellow employee. These cons never would have worked without Mitnick's extensive knowledge of the telecom systems, not to mention his incredible memory. This makes his particular brand of conning (re-branded "social engineering") a little different than the average scam.
This autobiography describes a world which no longer exists - when telecom was the very basis of computing. Nowadays the phrase "hacker" is so far removed from what it once was that it's almost meaningless. It's become interchangeable with "thief" and is hardly an accolade. When you say "hacker" the layperson will immediately think of someone in Russia or China stealing credit cards. But financial gain was never the motive of a true hacker.
Likewise, you'd be hard-pressed to find many payphones on the street, in these days of cheap cell phones. The NYC meetup for 2600 is still at the Citigroup building, but I doubt there are those rows of payphones in the building these days. Reading about Mitnick's adventures with hacking, dumpster diving, phone phreaking, and social engineering is a glimpse of a world forever lost to history.
I've never quite understood this compulsion to break into systems, although I'm a programmer, I find breaking into systems a boring prospect. Frankly I find it dull as dust. But for Mitnick and others of his kind, it's the ultimate thrill. He freely admits that his compulsion destroyed his life, led to many jobs being lost, extensive jail time, contributed to his divorce, cost his family much heartbreak not to mention cold hard cash, and generally wreaked havoc on his promising career in computing.
On the other hand, despite breaking into systems and stealing source code, was five years in prison - including more than 8 months in solitary confinement, with leg and arm shackles whenever he was out of his cell - really a proportionate sentencing? He stole source code, but never pirated or sold what he stole. He broke into systems, but did not cause any malicious harm. The notion that he could "launch NORAD missiles by blowing a whistle into a payphone" not to mention several other silly accusations, are just too ridiculous to contemplate, even for the 1980s. Yet the led to him being punished in the harshest manner reserved for the most violent and dangerous felons.
What was impossible for any jury or judge to understand is that Mitnick's goal was merely breaking in. It was the thrill of unlawful entry that motivated him, to the point at which it was a genuine compulsion. In the world of crime, this is fairly unusual. It'd be like a master cat burglar breaking into a high-security museum but leaving the actual jewels behind. That is not a typical scenario for criminals, and so his punishment was not about breaking into systems, not about stealing source code, but comparable to breaking into a system, stealing source code, then destroying every single copy of that software that existed in the entire world. Indeed that would cause millions of dollars in damage to a company, but it isn't what he actually did.
Of course, it's Mitnick's autobiography so we only have his point of view, but it's quite a different one than painted by Markoff, who portrays him as a more desperate loserish type, living in hotel rooms hand-to-mouth, stuffing himself with junk food until the wee hours of the morning, hacking away compulsively. Yet Mitnick describes living quietly in other cities with his stolen identities while evading the law. He was a plump teen but has been a fitness buff for many years and is incline towards healthy eating. Not to say his self-portrait is the most accurate one, but it is probably more so than all the other accounts written about him.
In some ways I'm a bit wistful for the days of phone phreaking even though, as I mentioned, I don't care at all about gaining illicit access to anything, but when I compare these trespasses to today's appalling digital crimes, it sure does make me long for the old days. ...more