Review of “Takedown” by Tsutomu Shimomura and John Markoff

Several weeks ago I read Ghost in the Wires, Kevin Mitnick’s autobiographical accounts of his hacking exploits, discovery by security researcher Tsutomu Shimomura, and reformation. Yesterday I finished Takedown, Tsutomo’s book about tracking down Mitnick.

Generally, the accounts agree. The framing or emphasis, however, changes. So, for instance, Shimomura (who had the time worked at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, emphasis his own personal skills and generally dismisses Mitnick as copying others or using trial-and-error techniques. Mitnick’s book actually agrees with this, where he is dismissive of the press’s wilder claims, and instead emphasizes the greatest tool he had was social engineering — that is, being a con-man.

This pattern — both books largely agreeing on facts, but differing in the interpretation of facts — even extends to Hollywood. Both Shimomura and Mitnick have mentioned Mitnick’s fascination with the 1992 Phil Alden Robinson film, Sneakers, starring Robert Redford, Dan Akroyd, Ben Kingsley, River Phoenix, and Sidney Poitier.

Shimomura chalks this up to Mitnick’s fixation on Robert Redford. In a public talk, Mitnick described Sneakers as the most realistic movie about hacking every filmed. After re-watching it, I agree. The protagonists of Sneakers are not especially amazing when it comes to technology. They are great at social engineering — being con men.

The whole topic of “social engineering” lets me talk about one of the most disorienting things about reading these two books. Kevin Mitnick was a social engineer — a con man — but one who did not seek to profit from his work. So he writes in a friendly (if manipulative) way that makes you sympathize with him. Shimomura, by contrast, is a jerk. The book is filled with criticisms of anyone who has helped him or any place that was good to him. Reading Takedown is an emotionally exhausting experience while reading Ghost in the Wires approaches the experience of having a massage — you’re no longer observing the world quite as objectively, but that’s not the point.

To illustrate, here’s an example. Mitnick is an intelligent and well-spoken individual. But pay attention to use his use of words:

I had seen some of the security bugs that Shimmy [Tsutomu Shimomura] had reported to Sun and DEC and been impressed with his bug-finding skills. In time I would learn that he had shoulder-length straight black hair, a preference for showing up at work wearing sandals and “raggady-ass jeans,” and a passion for cross-country skiing. He sounded every bit the kind of Californian conjured by the term “dude” — as in, “Hey dude, howz it hangin’?”

Mitnick is manipulating the reader by adopting several traits associated with a stereotype of the loveable hackers, including
1. An admiration for technical skill
2. An admiration for California generally
3. An admiration for non-conformists
4. An almost child-like view of the world, especially in the last sentence. [See my review of Veins for the power of his imagery]

Now, here’s a passage from Shimomura’s book

“I have no idea why Andrew [Shimomura’s mentee] told you to start cleaning up,” I said, incredulous.

Seiden, who is a computer security pro, was angry at having been misled at such an error. “Last time I take orders from Andrew,” he muttered. His task was no, we agreed would be to resume monitoring Mitnick’s activities on Internex for indication of how deep his supsicions now ran. Seiden was still fuming with indignation as we ended our call.

I punched in Andrew’s numbers. “What the hell’s going on?”

A good leader makes others great. Even cantankerous perfectionists like Steve Jobs can get excited in people. Shimomura instead criticizes and denigrates those close to him, to make himself appear brighter.

In keeping with this trend, Mitnick even gives Andrew’s family name twice, while in Tsutomu it is only given once, in Tsutomu’s co-author‘s acknowledgments.

I’m glad I read both books, but Ghost in the Wires is both more up to date and less grating.

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