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The pursuit and capture of Kevin Mitnick America's most-wanted computer outlaw - by the man who did it

Tsutomu Shimomura with John Markoff


324 pages

U.S. $24.95

ISBN 0-7868-6210-6

Reviewed by Chris Gulker

The Movie

In Takedown, Tsutomu Shimomura tells the story of his pursuit and the eventual capture by Federal agents of Kevin Mitnick, the fugitive hacker whom Shimomura believes attacked his computers on Christmas Day 1994.

His story is one side of a riveting tale of dark-side high-tech hacking, skewed relationships and bizarre personalities that splashed into national headlines early in 1995. The other side, that of Kevin Mitnick, is reported in The Fugitive Game - online with Kevin Mitnick, by Jonathan Littman

Shimomura, a computational physicist and highly-regarded computer security expert was lionized in New York Times accounts by high-tech writer John Markoff, who is co-author of the book.

The book is written as Shimomura's first-person account of the events surrounding the attack and the ultimate capture of Mitnick in Raleigh, North Carolina on February 15, 1995.

Shimomura's account starts with, and often returns to, the chronicle of an awkward and messy personal relationship with Julia Menapace, a programmer, as she struggles to leave mutual friend John Gilmore for Shimomura. Interspersed is the account of Shimomura's discovery and high tech pursuit of a hacker who launches a very sophisticated attack on his home computers.

Attacking a renowned security expert at the National Super Computer Center certainly falls into the class "tugging on Superman's cape". The attack is a state-of-the-art assault using "IP spoofing", a technique which renowned experts had theorized, but which had never been observed (or, at least, reported) previously.

Incredibly, the attack is launched from toad.com, one of John Gilmore's computers at Toad Hall, his stately San Francisco Victorian home. Even more incredibly, Shimomura and Menapace (but not Gilmore) are present at Toad Hall while the attack takes place, though their interest is not in the many computers in the toad.com domain.

Shimomura dismisses any notion that he might have been involved in attacking his own machine, a tack pursued by San Jose Mercury News reporter David Bank. Indeed, the great space given to the Shimomura-Menapace tryst seems to have been offered by way making clear how Shimomura came to be on the very premises from which his own machines were hacked.

This is an important point: Shimomura later says that Kevin Mitnick had the skills to use, but not actually engineer the attacking software. Shimomura almost certainly does, and the toad.com coincidence is too much to believe without the context of his developing relationship with Menapace.

Shimomura points to a shadowy Israeli figure, known only as "jsz", as the probable author of the strategy and the (possibly) automated attack program that was supposedly wielded by Kevin Mitnick.

The trail of Shimomura's stolen files (including code that turns a celular telephone into a scanner capable of finding and eavesdropping on any conversation in a given cell site) leads a chase through cyberspace to The Well, a famous San Francisco BBS and Internet provider, and on to Seattle, Denver, San Jose and ultimately to an apartment in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Shimomura emerges as a demanding, often intolerant taskmaster who chastizes colleagues, FBI agents and others as he single-mindedly pursues his quarry. The descriptions of the chase, replete with Shimomura's own clever hacks of systems at The Well and Netcom are fine stuff and well-paced.

Ultimately Shimomura gets his man and the real fun begins. A central tenet of the Littman book is that Shimomura and Markoff conspired to publicize Kevin Mitnick's hacking to take advantage of rampant Internet hype, the better to profit from lucrative book and movie deals.

It has been noted that Markoff, while highly respected, was not overly quick to point out his role in the affair in his Times' dispatches. Markoff was a victim of Mitnick's hacks and had been a longtime acquaintance of Shimomura's.

In the 19th Century American West, more than one newspaper and book writer picked out a "bad" guy and then wrote the of the heroic pursuit by the "good" guy. The tales were good, and most Americans in their Eastern towns didn't know any better. The players were in fact, sometimes awfully difficult to distinguish: the Clanton gang and the Earp brothers were all tough, gun-toting customers when you got right down to it. It took the skills of a writer to launch a legend and, not incidentally, the writer's own career.

Mitnick has been described as a sad, computer-obsessed loner undeserving of the infamy generated by Markhoff's NYT stories. John Gilmore and others point to Shimomura's own hacking abilities. Did cyber-frontier correspondant Markoff single out the Shimomura/Mitnick affair as writers of an earlier epoch seized upon the OK Corral?

Takedown answers these questions with a straightforward "no" while Fugitive Game says "yes". The reader will be left to make up her own mind, but this tale is perhaps not through. Takedown, and the events surrounding its creation, stand as an object lesson in the strange new spaces that are beginning to open on a wired planet


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