When it comes to true crime, I'm pretty squeamish. Nothing violent, please. Clever and devious are what I'm looking for. Frank Abagnale's Catch Me If You Can: The True Story Of A Real Fake
is one of the best, and it's hard not to compare any subsequent caper story to it.
Ghost in the Wires doesn't reach the level of audacity of Catch Me if You Can - impersonating technicians over the phone doesn't rise to the sheer nerve of a teenager impersonating an airline pilot or a doctor, as Abagnale did, and getting away with it. But Ghost in the Wires goes well beyond the adolescent bragfest of phone hacks that it could have been.
I think this is largely due to the co-writer, William L. Simon. Kevin Mitnick describes in his acknowledgments, how he and Simon argued over how detailed and technical the book should be, and apparently Simon prevailed. There's enough detail to explain how the scams were possible, but not so specific as to send the non-programmer into a hexadecimal stupor.
Another big plus is that many of the hacks depended as much on what Mitnick calls "social engineering" as on specialist knowledge. Unlike the stereotypical computer nerd, Mitnick was as comfortable and proficient at schmoozing people as he was writing code - he could talk his way into places that were restricted and convince people he was entitled to classified information. These were scams anyone can understand.
Mitnick also succeeds at not crossing the line from confident to insufferable, which is another pitfall of true crime tell-alls. Perhaps we can once again thank William Simon for this achievement.
I expected to skim this 400-page book but ended up reading every word. Mitnick was unbelievably audacious, and he says he never profited from his exploits. Knowing the risks (especially after he had already spent an unpleasant stretch in prison), how could he continue to risk getting caught again? He claims he was addicted to hacking, and while that seemed to me a sorry excuse for criminal behavior, it started to seem like a possibility. Or another con, perhaps.
Whatever Mitnick's reasons, Ghost in the Wires is as much fun to read as any summer thriller.