A hacker's 'Takedown': Everybody's at risk

January 21, 1996|By Scott Shane BBTCSO: sun staff

"Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnick, America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw - By the Man Who Did It," by Tsutomu Shimomura with John Markoff. Hyperion. 324 pages. $24.95

Kevin Mitnick is no John Dillinger. When FBI agents burst into his Raleigh, N.C., apartment a year ago, Mitnick didn't pull a gun. He threw up.

That anticlimax reflected the nature of his crimes - stealing software, tampering with telephone systems, reading other people's electronic mail. Though his scams required skill, they were seedy and sophomoric, never grand or terrifying. That Mitnick could be "America's most wanted computer outlaw" demonstrates that computer crime is still in its infancy.

The computer-illiterate FBI nabbed him only because he made the mistake of swiping files from the home computer of Tsutomu Shimomura, a San Diego computer security expert. Mr. Shimomura responded to this effrontery by turning the tables on Mitnick, peeking at his computer files, reading his E-mail and ultimately leading the G-men to their quarry.

Mr. Shimomura's account of his electronic detective work, written with New York Times technology reporter John Markoff, who tagged along, is an up-to-the-minute morality tale that pits good hacker against bad hacker, both just past 30, children of the age of silicon. There is sufficient technical detail to entertain Internet wizards without completely losing the rest of us.

But a thriller it is not. "Takedown" is curiously flat, clogged with irrelevant detail and disappointingly skimpy on context and reflection. Even as Mr. Shimomura closes in on his nemesis, he critiques his unsatisfactory dinner: "the breadbaskets were plastic ... the salad turned out to be strictly iceberg." How can the reader be enthralled if the hero is distracted from his quest by a restaurant's trivial failings?

Like Clifford Stoll, who told of tracking another hacker in his 1989 book, "The Cuckoo's Egg," Mr. Shimomura insists on telling the story of his evolving relationship with his new girlfriend, which here seems tedious padding. Yet in "The Cuckoo's Egg," which "Takedown" closely resembles, the stakes seemed higher: Mr. Stoll's German hackers were breaking into U.S. military computers for the KGB.

Still, as Mr. Shimomura remarks, "If you have somebody's name, address, telephone number, social security number and a credit card number you have everything you need to make a royal mess out of his life." Kevin Mitnick, whose five previous arrests for electronic skullduggery began at 17, had 20,000 stolen credit card numbers in his files. "Takedown" annoyingly fails to report whether he used them, but surely he earned the eight-month prison term he got in July.

Mr. Mitnick's electronic burglaries were stunningly easy. Typing in a few lines of code, he could seize total control of a computer system thousands of miles away, reading private messages, deleting files, changing passwords and adding a "back door" to make the next break-in effortless.

If we are to trust to the Internet not just casual messages and academic research but commercial secrets and digital cash, Mr. Shimomura and his colleagues will have to improve our electronic locks. His book reminds us just how vulnerable we are.

Scott Shane, a reporter for The Sun, recently co-wrote a series o articles on the National Security Agency, one of whose duties is to safeguard government computers. He is the author of "Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union."

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