Review: Ghost in the wires

‘Ghost in the wires’ is the autobiography of Kevin Mitnick, the “world’s most wanted hacker”. The book came out in 2011. Mitnick now claims to be reformed and has his own security consulting company.

Kevin Mitnick, as a teenager, was curious about breaking into computer systems. He did so, explains in the book how broke in mainly by using social engineering methods, and eventually got caught and was sent to a juvenile correctional facility. With this began a cycle that would repeat itself many times over the book.

The book is best in the early parts when Kevin describes one of his hacks. He understood that any system has weaknesses, technical or human. He would find a weakness and exploit it. He would persist if initially unsuccessful. The hacker mindset on display as he attempts to break into something just for the fun of it is something that people would do well to understand. Also, the ease with which systems built by hundreds of people can be subverted using very low-tech methods is something to know about.

As a person with some technical knowledge, I was able to follow a great deal of the technical hacking described in the book. A lot of what is described (“getting root”, “exploit [noun]”, etc.) is incomprehensible for the layman – my father gave the book a try. Surprisingly, the book gets boring after a while. Within the first hundred pages, one learns everything there is to know about Kevin’s non-technical social engineering skills. What follows is a repetition of what already happened: Kevin decides to break into something; he calls someone pretending to be someone else, elicits and easily gets required information from them; he breaks in; he learns that law enforcement may have gotten wind of it; he tries to cover his tracks and breaks into something else to get more information. The cycle continues, occasionally punctuated by visits from the police.

The discussion regarding law enforcement becomes complicated by the fact that they (and criminal prosecution) do not appear to have a good grasp on what Kevin has actually done (according to him), accuse him of crimes that he did not commit (according to Kevin) and prosecute him for the same. This is another interesting thing about the book that everyone trying to stay on the right side of the law in a fully internet-connected world should appreciate.

A serious problem with the book is Kevin’s lack of contrition. He is repeatedly sorry for the harm he did to his loved ones, but has no feelings whatsoever for the companies that he broke into, their employees, or for the people whom he insults with snide remarks in his book. His language, as a man in his forties (when the book was written), shows an immaturity that should have ended with teenage. Kevin repeatedly refers to the man who caught him, Tsutomu Shimomura, as “Shimmy”; he calls people “bastards”; he unnecessarily names and shames a colleague who may have wanted to have sex with him; etc.

The casual reader would learn much about the vulnerability of the devices and infrastructure that we use from going through about 100 pages of the book. 300+ pages is way too much to read about one egoistic hacker who may not have learned his lessons.

The Ransomware Social Contract

I had been anticipating this for a while: there has finally been a publicly known case where the social contact between ransomware extortionists and their victims had been broken. The contract? That after paying the ransom, the victims would be given access to their files.

What is ransomware? Extortionist criminals are now using this tactic to make money. They break into their victims computer systems and encrypt their data. The victims are then told to pay a ransom in order to get the key to decrypt the data. Imagine the situation where all your photos and work in your computer are inaccessible, despite still being in your computer. If you could pay a small amount to make this problem go away, odds are that you would.

Now multiply the volume of data a million-fold. A business is hit. Their daily operations requires this data to be accessible. Every second that they do not have it is money lost. If it is a hospital? Hospitals have been hit and left unable to provide effective care to their most vulnerable patients for short periods. Most would be willing to just pay the small amount in ransom than put their work in jeopardy.

Low ransoms and the fact that the extortionists have kept their promise of providing the decryption key have made ransomware a viable business model. This may be finally over. One hospital paid the ransom only to have the extortionists ask for more. The ‘social contact’ is broken. It was always a possibility that the attackers would go back on their word. It has happened.

Ransomware is not a new phenomenon. It has been around almost since three decades ago. For some reason, it just took off as something big in the last three years. Perhaps the existence of commercial software such as exploit kits that package various methods of attack without requiring much technical skill on the part of the attacker helped its rise.

What now? Ransomware is not about to go away. We should practise some IT security 101 to protect the data that is precious to us (yes, really). Backing up data is the old-fashioned and effective method that protects against the loss of data (ransomware or otherwise). Knowing not to click on unknown links or open dubious email attachments helps too. Keeping your operating system and software updated and having an anti-virus enabled is another. These things are all IT security 101 and knowing and practicing them will protect you against more than ransomware.

What if you have been hit and do not have a backup? You could pay, but be aware that you are depending upon the mercy of criminals.

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