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TUCoPS :: Cyber Culture :: fuck012.htm

Review of "Takedown"

Hacker Scene

=   F.U.C.K. - Fucked Up College Kids - Born Jan. 24th, 1993 - F.U.C.K.   =

                Review of _Takedown_ by Tsutomu Shimomura w/
                               John Markoff
            "The Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnick, America's
                        Most Wanted Computer Outlaw"

        I must admit that I approached this novel with a certain amount
of what can only be construed as bias against the co-authors of this book.
Even the inside cover caused me to wrinkle my nose with distaste.  One
thing I always have despised about "respected authors" is when they are
innacurate for the sake of dramatic effect.  On the inside cover, Markoff
says that Mitnick made a "fatal mistake" by breaking into the "brilliant"
Shimomura's computer system.  Well, as far as I know, Mitnick is still alive,
so the mistake could hardly have been fatal.  As far as Shimomura's
brilliance is concerned, well, I would have to reserve judgement on that
since I do not know him personally.  Also according to John Markoff, this
battle was fought for "the soul of the Internet."  It seems more like the
battle was fought for Shimomura's soul, since it was his personal files
that he was concerned about.  Later Shimomura states that he was probed
from the Colorado SuperNet on various occasions.  Now, had he been
fighting for "the soul of the Internet", he should have notified the
Colorado SuperNet of the suspicious activities emanating from their site
long before Mitnick used that site as a vehicle.  On the back cover, where
the credits are listed for the authors, Markoff is credited with being
"respected" for his "lucid coverage of technology."  I would have to
contest this statement.  I have read several accounts by journalists and
security experts who question Markoff's methods and his motives.  After
reading this book, I can say that I question them as well.
        Overall, I found the entire book to be rather difficult to get into.
The little details about Shimomura's personal life did nothing but weigh
the book down with unnecessary details.  If the book professes to be about
the capture of Kevin Mitnick, it should be about the capture of Kevin
Mitnick, not Shimomura's excercise habits or a catalogue of the scope of
his various Sun Workstations.  Furthermore, I must confess that I was never
interested in the details of Shimomura's romantic status, or the
"office gossip" that permeates the book.

        Early in the book, one of Shimomura's friends reports having
received a phone call from Mitnick himself.  They discussed the fact that
Shimomura had written a disassembler for Oki cell phones.  He then calls
John Markoff and plays a tape recording of the conversation for him.
Markoff, who admits to never being formally introduced to Mitnick, tells
Shimomura's buddy that it sounds like Mitnick on the phone.  I question two
things here:  1)  Why *did* Shimomura write a disassembler for an Oki
cell phone?  Did Oki hire him to do it?  2)  Since Markoff had never formally
met Mitnick, what makes him an authority in identifying his voice?  Does
writing a book about someone qualify you as an expert?   Only when Littman,
a journalist familiar with Mitnick's voice, confirms Markoff's suspicions,
does this become remotely swallowable.

        Throughout this tale, there are repeated references and citations
of Shimomura's brilliance and Markoff's technical savoire-faire.  There
is a long, drawn-out section devoted to how Shimomura frequently got into
trouble with his computer related activities and his relations with well-
known hackers-turned-security-experts.  Reprints of Markoff's "zero-day"
security articles pepper the book, complete with descriptions of how
they were "prominently displayed" in various national newspapers.  Frankly,
this leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  How can anyone trust an account of
events so riddled with self-serving biases?  Personally, I could not be
involved in a project like this where I was constantly patting myself and
my co-author on the back for our collective efforts against this "outlaw"
Kevin Mitnick.  The derogatory terms used to describe Mitnick are highly
inflammatory, the end result being an all-too-trite account of a man
neither person has ever met.  I am certainly no Mitnick apologist.  I do not
agree with what he has done.  I *do* disagree with subjective journalism
and self-serving treatments of events.

         After several chapters of tedious technical documentation of the
search for Mitnick, I, the reader, became rather bored with reading about
Shimomura's short Unix programs, meetings with Netcom, the WELL staff, and
Markoff.  There are a few bright points in the midst of all of this text,
however.  There are several exact transcripts of various sessions that
Mitnick initiated.  Although they seem to have been chosen for their
ability to put Mitnick in a bad light, they are still the only point in the
book where we get to see exactly what Mitnick was doing.  The verification
that Netcom did indeed keep their credit info online was also rather
refreshing, since Netcom has denied this since the file was stolen.

        Throughout the book, Shimomura repeatedly says that Mitnick is not
a good hacker, that he makes mistakes, and that he is just another geek
that can read a technical manual.  I disagree here also.  Obviously, if
Mitnick is good enough to keep Shimomura, the "brilliant" security expert,
chasing after him for so long (7 weeks total), then Mitnick can't be all
that stupid.  The fact that Shimomura did not disable well-known security
holes on his personal machines is slightly disconcerting.  The fact that
Shimomura did not tell the FBI who Markoff was and why he was present
during the chase smacks of outright deception.  I agree that Shimomura
used excellent techniques to find Mitnick, if a little unconventional.
From what this book portrays, Mitnick's downfall was his arrogance.
Shimomura clamped down on that and was able to use this to his advantage.

        From all that I have read, I can conclude that this book is
interesting, even if it is poorly written and slightly "bent" to one
side.  I recommend that anyone interested in this topic should read it,
keeping in mind the various ethical considerations involved when a
reporter gets involved in chasing down a hacker.  Even John Littman
asks questions about this in his book about Kevin Poulson, _The Fugitive
Game_.  Even the FBI was uncomfortable with Markoff's presence during the
investigation.  I think this is a valid concern, and that Markoff should
reconsider his motives when writing about the computer undergorund.  One
more fiasco like this one and I don't think anyone would shrink from
calling his kind of journalism "yellow".


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