Ghost in the Wires Summary and Review

by Kevin Mitnick
  Has Ghost in the Wires by Kevin Mitnick been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. Most people think that there are two main types of computer specialists - the greasy-haired geeks who wear glasses and who love anything that is computer-related and the shady hackers. People who are familiar with the hacking world know that there are also two different types of hackers: good hackers, who unveil the misdeeds of corrupt governments and bad hackers who are greedy and who plunder bank accounts and steal personal information. Well, things are more complex than that. At first sight, the life of a hacker seems interesting and exciting but that isn’t always the case. However, there are certain people who make it seem that way. One such person is the book’s author, Kevin Mitnick, a notorious hacker whose life is chock-full of thrilling escapades. So let’s take a look at the history of this controversial character. Here are some of the things that we’ll discuss throughout this book summary:
  • how Kevin Mitnick’s passion for magic led to him becoming a hacker;
  • how Mitnick managed to outsmart the FBI; and
  • how he eventually decided to become a “good” hacker.

GHOST IN THE WIRES CHAPTER #1: Ever since he was a child, Mitnick was fascinated by magic and manipulation.

Kevin Mitnick was born on the 6th of august, 1963, he was primarily raised by his mother  Kelly Mitnick and he was an only child. They lived in Southern California, where his mother had trouble finding work and got involved in many bad relationships. Kevin’s childhood was not a particularly happy one. Because they were constantly on the move, it was quite difficult for Kevin to make friends. Additionally, his mother’s boyfriends weren’t always nice to him, some of them being downright abusing. Therefore, Keving grew up to be an anti-authority teenager. Although Kevin was a good student, got good grades and was even good at sports, there was something else that captured his imagination - magic. Kevin fell in love with magic when he was only 10 years old. When a neighbor showed him a few magic tricks, Kevin became obsessed with the element of deception. He started learning new tricks and practiced them unrelentlessly. He also had a fascination with manipulating the audience. When he was a teenager, Kevin would spend hours at the Survival Bookstore reading and studying The Big Brother Game, a step-by-step guide written by Scott French on how to gain access to people’s personal information, their bank account details, their property records, and even their driving history. The techniques that he learned from books throughout his formative years came in handy as Kevin delved deeper into the world of social engineering. As the young Kevin Mitnick would soon realize, manipulating people into doing whatever you want is a subtle and fascinating art. And if you manage to establish trust, the possibilities are endless. Say you want to acquire specific information from a company and you give them a call. If you use the correct lingo and terminology, you will sound much more trustworthy. Who wouldn’t trust someone who sounds just like everyone else at the company? By using this technique and by ensuring that he was always saying the right things, Kevin Mitnick was able to get personal information on his teachers, his friends, and even complete strangers. It might sound crazy, but his strategy worked more often than not. And he was doing all of these things before he even turned seventeen!

GHOST IN THE WIRES CHAPTER #2: In the early 1980s, when Mitnick began his hacking career, he was still a teenager.

When it comes to exploiting the digital world, the 1980s were a perfect time. Security systems were still rather simple and vulnerable and digital records were becoming increasingly popular. But before he started working with computers, Mitnick explored his options with simple phone calls. Just by making a phone call, Mitnick gained access to all the files that he wanted from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). To sound credible, Mitnick would call the targeted company and pose as a police officer. He noticed that whenever he called, the DMV clerk would always ask for his “Requester Code”. That was a very specific terminology that only the DMV workers used, and Mitnick used that in his favor. His strategy involved calling the DMV and posing as a company representative who was simply asking to confirm an officer’s Requester Code. In order to get the correct code, he would make up a code on the spot and wait for the company representative to correct his mistake and just tell him the right code. This proved to be an extremely easy and effective technique, so Mitnick called the DMV repeatedly and he soon gained access to all the driving records for the state of California. However, things didn’t always go smoothly and Kevin soon got into some trouble with the local authorities. What gave him up was his attempt to create a fake administrator account on a computer that belonged to the research company where the father of his friend worked. In order to gain access to the computer network, Mitnick used the account of his friend’s father and once he was in the system, he hacked an administrator account. Mitnick knew how to cover his tracks, but when his friend Micah tried to do the same thing, he wasn’t as successful. Therefore, the company noticed that there was a security breach and they notified the FBI. They initially suspected that Micah’s father was trying to hack the system. But Micah’s father questioned his son about the incident, and the young man eventually cracked and pointed the finger at Mitnick. That’s when Mitnick had his first encounter with the FBI, who paid him a visit but couldn’t do much about the incident. Back then, there were no laws to regulate computer hacking and Kevin Mitnick wasn’t even 18 years old yet. So, the only thing that the FBI could do was give the boy a stern warning and call it a day. This only encouraged Mitnick, who soon went back to doing what he enjoyed most.

GHOST IN THE WIRES CHAPTER #3: Mitnick was arrested for the first time because of his friends’ unfortunate decisions.

What Kevin Mitnick liked the most was seeing how far he would go by making a simple phone call or by accessing a computer. But although he was never interested in stealing money or other valuable things, he still managed to get into trouble with the authorities. This time, instead of the usual mistakes, the source of his problems was a scorned woman. The young hacker wanted to test his limits and see whether he could hack US Leasing which was a giant company, so he asked his friend Lewis to help him. As per usual, Mitnick’s plan started with a phone call during which he pretended to be a network technician who was calling to report a computer bug and warn them that their data was at risk. This story was convincing enough and Mitnick got access to an admin account in order to “fix” the bug. Everything went according to plan and the hack was successful but Mitnick’s friend, Lewis happened to break up with his girlfriend. Her name was Susan and she was also a hacker. In an attempt to get back at Lewis, Susan used the data that he left lying around to access the US Leasing system herself. She gained control over all printing machines in the company and printed out hundreds of pages with Kevin Mitnick’s name on them. But she didn’t stop there. When she found out that Mitnick and Lewis used their tricks on the local phone company and stole the employee manuals, she decided to call the cops. As a result, Mitnick was arrested for the first time in his life. Because he was still 17, Mitnick was only sentenced to stay in a juvenile detention center for 90 days. Mitnick’s case proved to be extremely puzzling to the judge who couldn’t understand why someone would go through all that trouble to get something they didn’t need and didn’t use. In the early 1980s hacking for fun was unheard of, so the judge just assumed that Kevin and his friend were somehow profiting from it. While still in juvie, Kevin Mitnick turned 18 and even though he was fully aware that from then on he would be tried as an adult, he didn’t give up hacking.

GHOST IN THE WIRES CHAPTER #4: In his twenties, Mitnick got into trouble again.

Although he was still young, Kevin Mitnick was already quite famous in the local IT community. His previous crimes, although small, had even been reported in the LA Times. As expected, Mitnick’s newfound notoriety had some disadvantages. For a start, being known as a hacker meant that it would be difficult for him to find legitimate work in the computer industry. After all, which company would willingly put their systems into the hands of a resourceful hacker? Luckily, however, after graduating from a short computing training program at a trade school, Kevin was able to benefit from the school’s job placement program. As a result, he managed to find a job at the GTE telephone company. The funny thing is that GTE was one of Mitnick’s victims as he had already hacked the company. Luckily, he was never caught and the HR department had no idea that he ever did that. Things were looking good for Mitnick and he was happy to finally do something that he liked and get paid for it. That’s right, his job consisted of identifying the weaknesses of the company’s systems and improve their security. In other words, he was hired to hack the company, but this time he was getting paid for it. But more often than not, when things seem too good to be true, then they are. Because the job consisted of Mitnick getting access to sensitive information, the company required him to fill out a security form. He immediately realized that the form would lead to them running a background check on him and realizing that he was a convicted hacker. Sure enough, Mitnick was fired after just nine days on the job. Now unemployed, there was nothing else to do but to get back to his old hobbies. At the time, Mitnick had a girlfriend and instead of spending his evenings with her, he was lying about taking night classes at UCLA. Instead, he was spending his time doing what he did best, hacking. Soon enough, Mitnick was caught red-handed when he hacked into Santa Cruz Operations (SCO), a well-known software company. But this time, things got out of control and, because SCO filed a lawsuit against him and his girlfriend, they were each fined for a whopping 1.4 million dollars. This was way worse than his previous conviction. However, Mitnick later found out that the huge fines were, in fact, a way for the SCO to pressure him into revealing his methods. They wanted to know how he hacked their systems. So, in exchange for his cooperation, they dropped their charges and luckily for Mitnick, he got away with just three years probation.

GHOST IN THE WIRES CHAPTER #5: Mitnick risked going to jail once again due to a mysterious meeting.

Mitnick knew that his interests might get him into trouble, but that didn’t stop him. He had a purpose and he knew that doing what you love is extremely important.
In 1989, Kevin Mitnick was once again betrayed by a friend who ratted him out. As a result, he ended up spending a few months in jail. Initially, Mitnick thought of this as an opportunity to change his ways and to get back on the straight and narrow. But instead, right after he got out of jail he got some seriously bad news. Apparently, while he was in jail, he then-girlfriend had been cheating on him with none other than his best friend, Lewis. Being upset and hurt, Mitnick couldn’t resist getting back in the hacking game when he heard that there was a new hacker in town. Mitnick heard rumors about Eric Heinz, a whiz kid who was gaining popularity and, naturally, he wanted to find out more. When Mitnick finally met Heinz he took a liking to him immediately and he knew that the guy really knew his stuff. But there was something quite weird about Heinz that made Mitnick uneasy, he was extremely paranoid. Another weird thing about Heinz was that he was too financially comfortable for someone who didn’t have a job. So, upon their meeting, Mitnick decided to search the usual channels and see what he could find about Heinz. He couldn’t find anything and the mystery deepened. But there was something that Heinz told Mitnick that was quite interesting. He told him that he could hack any phone system on the west coast because he had his hands on all the access codes. In other words, Heinz could listen in on any single phone call conversation in California. This situation was extremely intriguing for Mitnick but he still couldn’t shake the feeling that Heinz was doing something suspicious. Additionally, after their first encounter, Heinz made up all sorts of excuses to cancel all future meetings. Mitnick was worried that Heinz was not a real hacker and that everything he said was a lie, so he began doing extra research. He soon learned that he was right and that Heinz was, in fact, an FBI agent. While listening in on Heinz’s phone calls, he heard a conversation that he was having with another agent. Heinz was talking about wanting to put Mitnick behind bars and getting a search warrant for his house.

GHOST IN THE WIRES CHAPTER #6: Knowing about the FBI surveillance, Mitnick tried to be one step ahead.

Luckily for Mitnick, the FBI agents had no idea that he was listening to their conversations. This gave the young hacker an advantage, a way to avoid their trap and be one step ahead. Mitnick was 28 years old when he began to spy on the FBI and to do everything in his power to outsmart them. He knew that his apartment was being staked out by the FBI and that they were watching his every move from the neighboring windows and clinging to every opportunity they had to get a search warrant or a piece of evidence. So he started to clear his apartment of every piece of potential evidence. He even wrote a note for the FBI that read “FBI doughnuts” and stuck it to his fridge to let them know that he was fully aware of their plans. The FBI was not happy to learn that Mitnick had this information and they soon organized a search party and ransacked his apartment. But, because Mitnick was expecting this, he was cleaned-up his apartment. The FBI couldn’t find anything and Mitnick felt victorious. But despite not being able to find anything, the FBI didn’t stop their investigation there. Shortly afterward, it was finally legal for Mitnick to travel as his three-year probation was coming to an end. His probation period ended right in time as three days later, his mother was visited by the FBI who had a warrant for his arrest. It was now clear for Mitnick that if he wanted to avoid going to prison he needed to leave town. Consequently, he decided to get a new identity and to start over in Las Vegas,  Nevada, a city of dreams and deceit. To change his identity, Mitnick had to put his previously acquired social engineering skills to good use. He got a social security number and birth certificate under the name of Eric Weiss, the real name of his lifelong idol, Harry Houdini.

GHOST IN THE WIRES CHAPTER #7: Close calls and multiple fake identities were regular things in Mitnicks’s life as a fugitive.

While he was trying to start his new life as Eric Weiss, Kevin Mitnick made sure to always have his ID and money on his person. But people have a good reason not to walk around with thousands of dollars and Mitnick learned this the hard way. A thief stole$11,000 when he broke into his gym locker. Mitnick lost all his money that day so he decided to get a real job. In order to do so, he moved to Denver, Colorado where he bought newspapers and sifted through all the job ads. He managed to get invited to an interview for a job at Holme, Roberts & Owen, a local law firm. While Mitnick did a great job at the interview, coming up with references and a résumé was a challenge. But Mitnick found a way around this and he invented a fake company with a fake phone number and PO box and put it in his résumé. Then, he called up Holme, Roberts & Owen posing as Eric’s former employer and gave them a glowing recommendation. Thanks to his resourcefulness, Mitnick now had a nice job working in the law firm’s computer department. But this was not the end of his hacking career. At the time, cell-phone technology was making huge leaps and Mitnick was extremely eager to learn as much as he could about source codes, programming code and how new devices worked. At the top of Mitnick’s hit list were the top companies of the industry: Nokia, NEC, and Motorola. Hacking Nokia and Motorola was easy. He gained access to the source code and covered his tracks. But, with the last company, NEC, he was less fortunate. While he was working on covering his tracks and ensuring that he wasn’t being followed or tracked, he accidentally intercepted an email addressed to the FBI. An NEC administrator was contacting the authorities because he had noticed that some of the company’s source codes were being transferred to a server in Los Angeles. That was exactly what Mitnick was doing, so he was quite shocked to find that the FBI was once again on his trail. He realized that he needed to take better safety precautions if he wanted to stay out of jail.

GHOST IN THE WIRES CHAPTER #8: After he got fired from his job, things started to go downhill for Mitnick.

In the mid-1990s, Mitnick was happy to have a regular job in Denver at a local law firm. But little did he know that he would lose his job abruptly. He had developed a habit to make social engineering calls during his lunch break. His bosses were starting to grow suspicious and they were under the impression that Mitnick was using the company phone and resources to conduct independent consultancy work. So, when he was 30 years old, Kevin Mitnick was once again jobless. There was only one thing left for him to do - to change his identity once again. So he hit the reset button, changed his name and moved to a different city. This time, he moved to Seattle, Washington and became Brian Merrill. Finding a job in Seattle’s booming tech industry was not a problem for Mitnick. But leading the life of a fugitive and making repeated efforts to escape the law started to affect Mitnick’s psyche. He became increasingly paranoid and things got so bad that he would have a panic attack each time he noticed a helicopter flying overhead. He was convinced that he was being followed, that his cell phone was tracked and that the authorities were aware of his whereabouts. But, ironically, what finally caught the attention of the Seattle authorities was Mitnick’s strategy of covering his tracks. In an attempt to make free phone calls, he had been using cloning methods that would make it look as if he was calling from a different phone number. Consequently, the local authorities started to investigate him as a suspect for illegal cell-phone use and soon enough the FBI got involved. But what Mitnick didn’t know was that one of his old hacker buddies was now working as an FBI informant. So after he called his buddy up, the FBI learned that Brian Merrill of Seattle was none other than their favorite fugitive Kevin Mitnick. Mitnick knew that the FBI was closing in on him so he left Seattle and moved to Raleigh, North Carolina. But moving to a different city didn’t help, as the FBI was now tracking his cell phone and it wasn’t long before they showed up on Mitnick’s doorstep with a search warrant in hand. Mitnick was hoping that the FBI would find nothing to incriminate him and that his fake identity might hold up. But, sadly, the FBI found an old payslip with his real name - Kevin Mitnick printed at the top in an old ski jacket.

GHOST IN THE WIRES CHAPTER #9: Because Mitnick’s trial was quite unjust, the “Free Kevin” movement appeared and he received a plea bargain.

After being on the run for three years, Kevin Mitnick was finally in the hands of the authorities on February 15, 1995. But while he was standing in a courtroom in North Carolina and listening to the charges that were being filed against him, Mitnick noticed that the FBI was using their heavy artillery. They used every single call that he had ever made from a cloned cell phone and each of them was the equivalent of 20 years of prison. With 23 illicit calls on record, Mitnick was looking at no less than 460 years in jail. Although Kevin Mitnick only committed petty crimes, the FBI wanted to use him as an example and to set a precedent that would have an impact on other hackers. Mitnick was also investigated for billions of dollars worth of trade secrets that consisted of mobile-phone companies’ source codes and 20,000 credit card numbers. But it is worth mentioning that despite being in the possession of all of these assets, Mitnick never used them to gain a profit.  But for the hacked corporations this detail didn’t really matter and they ended up demanding up to $300 million in damages from Mitnick. Additionally, he was treated like a supervillain by the prosecutors and he was even denied the right to a bail hearing. This came as a shock to Kevin Mitnick’s defense attorney because he had never witnessed something similar throughout the history of American law. Mitnick was also denied the right to check the evidence because he wasn’t allowed near a computer. But the outside world was starting to react to the way in which Kevin was being treated so a “Free Kevin” campaign was quickly created. People started making banners and stickers and numerous articles were written by people who were protesting the injustice. The pro-Kevin movement made a huge difference and soon enough Kevin received a better plea agreement. His damages were now being reduced from $300 million to $4,125. However, he would still be put under tight supervision for three years and he would be forbidden the use of any electronic devices. Mitnick knew that the offer was good so he took the deal. In the end, he only spent five years in jail.

GHOST IN THE WIRES CHAPTER #10: After he was released, Kevin Mitnick became famous and used his skills in a positive way.

After the trial, Mitnick decided to change his ways and to find a new life for himself. Part of the change was owed to a letter he received from US Senator Fred Thompson. The Senator was inviting Kevin to take part in a Senate hearing that focused on protecting the US government from cyber attacks. Mitnick saw this as an opportunity and was happy to share his expertise. Soon thereafter he started receiving many similar requests. Obviously, since he was no longer allowed to use a computer, this was his only chance to do the things he loved, so he started to earn a living by helping others. His contributions were appreciated and he was soon working with government agencies and industry giants, and appearing on news shows. He even got the attention of director and Hollywood producer J.J. Abrams. Abrams was a vocal supporter of the Free Kevin movement and he had a great appreciation for the talented hacker, so he even offered him a cameo role in Alias, a very popular TV show. But ironically, Mitnick’s character was a CIA agent and not a hacker. And, because his role required using a computer and Mitnick wasn’t allowed to use one, his keyboard was disconnected the whole time. So after getting out of jail Mitnick had great opportunities even experienced a short celebrity moment, which is an unusual thing for a convicted felon who is permanently under surveillance. Mitnick knew that his life had improved and he was thankful for it. He was also eager to share his knowledge so he decided to become a writer and a technology consultant. Luckily, his parole officer eventually agreed to allow Mitnick to use a laptop to write The Art of Deception, his first book. However, he wasn’t allowed to have an internet connection. When the book was released in 2002, it became a bestseller almost immediately. It even outperformed Pope John Paul II’s book in Poland, the land of the Pope’s birth. Over the years, Mitnick realized that he really like working as a consultant as he gets to do the thing that he always wanted to do: ethical hacking. At the moment, Mitnick is hired by companies around the world to help them improve their security measures by hacking into their systems. A dream job.


What’s the key message of Kevin Mitnick’s Ghost in the Wires? Kevin Mitnick is a very notorious hacker, but throughout his career, he has never used his talents to steal money. He was in it for the thrill. He wanted to know just how far he could get through deception and how weak most security systems are. But the law caught up with him and that was probably for the best. After spending a few years in jail, Mitnick changed his life for the better. He is now a “good” hacker, helping companies around the world and governments find their weak spots and improve their security.  
Suggested further reading: Finding the things that you are passionate about can sometimes be extremely difficult. Find out what you can do with your life from this article.