CyberCrime - or hype?

(Hyperion and Little, Brown publish competing books about capture of hacker Kevin Mitnick by cybersleuth Tsutomu Shimomura)

Norman Oder.

Abstract: Hyperion signed John Markoff, who had written about Mitnick in a previous book and knew Shimomura, to write 'Takedown' with the supercomputer expert, Jonathan Litton, who had been in contact with Littman, will publish 'The Fugitive Game' with LB. Discrepancies between the books are discussed.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT Reed Publishing USA 1995 Hyperion & LB width competing stories

IT WAS FRONT-PAGE news last Feb. 16 in the New York Times. A Most-Own Web' read the headline on John Markoff's story. Kevin Mitnick, whom an assistant U.S. attorney called "arguably the most wanted computer hacker in the world," had been ought by a team of FBI agents, with the help of a computer security expert, Tsutomo Shimomura, whose computer had apparently been hacked by Mitnick.

Not surprisingly, cybersleuth Shimomura got calls from more than a hundred agents. Markoff's agent, John Brockman--who had unsuccessfully tried to sign up Shimomura a month earlier, when Markoff wrote about the experts decision to track Mitnick--got several calls from editors. "It seemed like a neat project," Markoff recalls, and he and Shimomura began considering a book. Hyperion won the auction, and in January will publish Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnick, America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw--By the Man Who Did It ($24.95), written by Shimomura with Markoff. However, months before Shimomura began tracking Mitnick, the fugitive was in contact with freelance journalist Jonathan Littman. And Littman began writing a broader, more critical look at the whole saga. The Fugitive Game: Online with Kevin Mitnick ($23.95) will be published by Little, Brown, also in January.

Did Markoff hype his own story, Littman's book asks, drawing on some questions asked on-line and in the Nation shortly after the story broke. Meanwhile, Markoff and Shimomura--who've seen Littman's book, though the inverse isn't true--question many of his facts and conclusions.

Both books should generate wide publicity. Shimomura will appear on Dateline NBC and the Today Show. He and Markoff will go on at least a five-city book tour, and they will twice cover 20 cities by satellite radio and TV. First printing is 100,000. Brockman has sold the book to 14 countries, and Miramax has bought film rights. Meanwhile, Littman's book has a first printing of 75,000 copies and is a BOMC alternate selection; agent Kris Dahl has sold rights in Japan and Brazil. Littman will go on a five-city tour. The Hyperion deal--split evenly between the authors--has been estimated at $750,000; the Little, Brown contract at $200,000.

Ironically, Hyperion's books are distributed by Little, Brown. However, says Hyperion publisher Bob Miller, the sales reps are "playing it as a positive." Indeed, the house accelerated publication of Takedown so as not to be overtaken by its rival.

Markoff: Cyber Vet

Times-man Markoff had become a Mitnick expert by writing, with then-wife Katie Hafner, Cyberpunk (Simon & Schuster, 1991), an account of three renegade hackers, including Mitnick. For several years, he had used Shimomura, a research fellow at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, as a source, and had even taken a ski trip with him. In January, Markoff put Shimomura in the Times by name, writing that his computer was hacked on Christmas Day with software crucial to Internet security taken, and that Shimomura "considers solving the crime a matter of honor." (In Takedown, Shimomura calls Markoff's prose in that article "melodramatic.") Shimomura, along with other security exports, began reconstructing the crimes, and he gathered increasing evidence the culprit was Mitnick. The cybersleuth kept in dose contact with the reporter, so when Shimomura flew from California to Raleigh, N.C., to help locate Mitnick through electronic surveillance, Markoff was on the scene.

But Markoff resists Littman's suggestion-based on their conversations--that he planned a book all along. "The sad thing is that my previous book led to a divorce. I was trying to get out of writing about people who break into computers."

Brockman pitched the book as a first-person story, and Markoff says he could only get a three-month leave. "I didn't want to do a lot of reporting. The market was for Tsutomo's first-person story."

So he aimed "to write an adventure story," interviewing Shimomura every day for a month, describing the tasks involved in computer sleuthing, delving into a complicated chronology and debating appropriate metaphors for technical facts.

Littman: Mitnick Tracker

Littman, author of Once Upon a Time in ComputerLand (S & S, 1990), entered the case from the back door. After writing a 1993 Los Angeles Times Magazine article on a hacker named Kevin Poulsen, he'd gotten a contract from Little, Brown to expand his research into a book. "I found I really should talk to Mitnick," he recalls. He put the word out, and a month later, Littman got a call at his Mill Valley, Calif., house directing him to a pay phone. On the line was Mitnick. And Mitnick kept calling, even sending electronic messages, telling his story, complaining about Markoff's portrayal of him in Cyberpunk and defending his hacking as the search for knowledge, not for material gain.

Littman's eight-month pipeline to Mitnick became valuable when, shortly after Mitnick's apparent Christmas Day hack of Shimomura, Markoff--whom Littman had helped slightly with Cyberpunk--directed a Playboy assignment to profile Mitnick to Littman. Then, when Mitnick was captured, Littman told Roger Donald, v-p and editorial director at Little, Brown, that he had his own portrait of Mitnick and the hacker underground. So Littman put his Poulsen book on hold and flew to Raleigh, where he sat next to Shimomura in court.

"This was a very unique story," Littman observes, "because the initial coverage was dominated by one reporter and one newspaper and, essentially, one source." He doesn't see his book as a defense of Mitnick--he's skeptical of the hacker--but as an attempt to tell a larger story.

Hype & Perceptions

How big a case was this? The Hyperion ad in an August PW, as Littman notes, hyped it to the max: "He could have crippled the world," read the copy over Mitnick's mugshot. "Only one man could stop him. Shimomura."

Markoff disavows the ad copy: "We were basically dismayed by that."

While Takedown describes Mitnick as the "most wanted computer outlaw," was he the most dangerous? Markoff says no, "maybe most persistent." Shimomura says Mimicks technical skills are "mediocre," while his real talent is "social engineering" or conning information from people.

And could only one man stop him? Well, Shimomura did, But, as Littman notes, in fact another tracker, in Seattle, had also located Mitnick, though the fugitive eluded police.

The lead of Markoff's crucial Times story emphasized that Mitnick had a file with 20,000 credit card numbers--"because people could understand that," says Markoff But Littman points out that several hackers had that file, and Mitnick denied he ever wanted to use the cards. Markoff says the story raises larger questions about the rapidly changing Internet, particularly about "the walls that have gone up and the community that's been lost." Some hackers have defended Mitnick, but Shimomura says: "I don't see anything qualitatively different from saying I can break into your house as long as I just look around."

Another question regards the value of damage caused by Mitnick. "It would appear from the evidence he had in possession software and data that other companies spent many millions to develop," says Shimomura. In Takedown, he writes that the FBI assigns priority to cases by dollar value: "[I]f they wanted dollars, I would now give them dollars." Littman writes that it's "easy for the government to exaggerate the software loss."

Why was Shimomura, a private citizen, called in to assist a federal investigation? "I think if the FBI could talk to you they'd say they don't want citizens to be taking over investigations," Littman says. But Shimomura, a consultant to companies that were hacked, observes that an assistant U.S. attorney told him "that I was the one who's driving this."

Littman raises darker questions about Shimomura, who has indirectly received grant money from the National Security Agency, calling him an "NSA spy." Shimomura, who was born in Japan, laughs. "The NSA doesn't hire foreign nationals." In Takedown, he calls the NSA incompetent."

Littman quotes several conversations he had with Markoff, at one point reporting that Markoff said, almost laughing, "I've thought about trying to catch Mitnick, but I guess that wouldn't be politically correct." Littman's galley even describes Markoff as assisting in the Raleigh investigation; Markoff has gathered statements disputing that from some Littman sources and has asked for corrections. Markoff says Littman distorts his role, emphasizing that his only activity was as a reporter; he says no conversations he had with Littman were on the record.

Littman hedges when asked whether the talks were clearly on the record: "For some reason, Markoff feels that no other reporter or publication can write about the fact that he became a large part of the story."

Littman also suggests that Markoff violated internal Times guidelines by writing about a source with whom he had a financial relationship, At the least, he notes, Markoff should not have written a story about the case on Feb. 19, after Brockman was circulating his proposal. Markoff responds jesuitically, noting that no contract had been signed yet: "My belief was that I didn't have a business relationship."

Even as the books appear, the story is not over. All along, Shimomura had been receiving voice-mail messages from a person dose to Mitnick, taunting him with juvenile slurs; after Mitnick's arrest but before it was made public, Shimomura received another such message "It's a wonderful puzzle," Markoff says.

While the publicity accorded Mitnick may suggest a "single hacker theory," both books describe how Mitnick was in contact with an Israeli known on-line as JSZ, someone more technologically adept than he. In fact, The Fugitive Game quotes a friend of Shimomura's saying that Shimomura thought Mitnick's ally was the actual hacker. Shimomura says that's untrue.

Meanwhile, Mitnick, having pleaded guilty to minor charges in North Carolina, waits in a Los Angeles jail pending hearings on more charges. Markoff is off the case, though he still covers computer issues from the Times' San Francisco bureau. Is Shimomura involved in trying to track Mimicks accomplice(s)?

"I can't answer that," he replies.