Little, Brown and Company

Book Excerpt: 'The Art of Invisibility' by Kevin Mitnick

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In the informative and fascinating The Art of Invisibility, the world’s most famous hacker, Kevin Mitnick, looks at our Extremely Online world, analyzes how we got here, and approaches our current state from a standpoint of practicality – i.e., since we are all aware and (to some extent) accepting of how vulnerable we are, why not take the proper steps to protect yourself and your privacy?

We’re pleased to present this excerpt from The Art of Invisibility: The World’s Most Famous Hacker Teaches You How to Be Safe in the Age of Big Brother and Big Data, out this week in paperback from Little, Brown.

FROM “THE ART OF INVISIBILITY”:

Almost two years to the day after Edward Joseph Snowden, a con- tractor for Booz Allen Hamilton, first disclosed his cache of secret material taken from the National Security Agency (NSA), HBO comedian John Oliver went to Times Square in New York City to survey people at random for a segment of his show on privacy and surveillance. His questions were clear. Who is Edward Snowden? What did he do?

In the interview clips Oliver aired, no one seemed to know. Even when people said they recalled the name, they couldn’t say exactly what Snowden had done (or why). After becoming a contractor for the NSA, Edward Snowden copied thousands of top secret and classified documents that he subsequently gave to reporters so they could make them public around the world. Oliver could have ended his show’s segment about surveillance on a depressing note — after years of media coverage, no one in America really seemed to care about domestic spying by the government — but the comedian chose another tack. He flew to Russia, where Snowden now lives in exile, for a one-on-one interview.

The first question Oliver put to Snowden in Moscow was: What did you hope to accomplish? Snowden answered that he wanted to show the world what the NSA was doing — collecting data on almost everyone. When Oliver showed him the interviews from Times Square, in which one person after another professed not to know who Snowden was, his response was, “Well, you can’t have everyone well informed.”

Why aren’t we more informed when it comes to the privacy issues that Snowden and others have raised? Why don’t we seem to care that a government agency is wiretapping our phone calls, our e-mails, and even our text messages? Probably because the NSA, by and large, doesn’t directly affect the lives of most of us — at least not in a tangible way, as an intrusion that we can feel.

But as Oliver also discovered in Times Square that day, Americans do care about privacy when it hits home. In addition to asking questions about Snowden, he asked general questions about privacy. For example, when he asked how they felt about a secret (but made-up) government program that records images of naked people whenever the images are sent over the Internet, the response among New Yorkers was also universal — except this time everyone opposed it, emphatically. One person even admitted to having recently sent such a photo.

Everyone interviewed in the Times Square segment agreed that people in the United States should be able to share anything — even a photo of a penis — privately over the Internet. Which was Snowden’s basic point.

It turns out that the fake government program that records naked pictures is less far-fetched than you might imagine. As Snowden explained to Oliver in their interview, because companies like Google have servers physically located all over the world, even a simple message (perhaps including nudity) between a husband and wife within the same US city might first bounce off a foreign server. Since that data leaves the United States, even for a nanosecond, the NSA could, thanks to the Patriot Act, collect and archive that text or e-mail (including the indecent photo) because it technically entered the United States from a foreign source at the moment when it was captured. Snowden’s point: average Americans are being caught up in a post-9/11 dragnet that was initially designed to stop foreign terrorists but that now spies on practically everyone.

*

You would think, given the constant news about data breaches and surveillance campaigns by the government, that we’d be much more outraged. You would think that given how fast this happened — in just a handful of years — we’d be reeling from the shock and marching in the streets. Actually, the opposite is true. Many of us, even many readers of this book, now accept to at least some degree the fact that everything we do — all our phone calls, our texts, our e-mails, our social media — can be seen by others.

And that’s disappointing.

Perhaps you have broken no laws. You live what you think is an average and quiet life, and you feel you are unnoticed among the crowds of others online today. Trust me: even you are not invisible. At least not yet.

*

I enjoy magic, and some might argue that sleight of hand is necessary for computer hacking. One popular magic trick is to make an object invisible. The secret, however, is that the object does not physically disappear or actually become invisible. The object always remains in the background, behind a curtain, up a sleeve, in a pocket, whether we can see it or not.

The same is true of the many personal details about each and every one of us that are currently being collected and stored, often without our noticing. Most of us simply don’t know how easy it is for others to view these details about us or even where to look. And because we don’t see this information, we might believe that we are invisible to our exes, our parents, our schools, our bosses, and even our governments.

The problem is that if you know where to look, all that information is available to just about anyone.

Excerpted from THE ART OF INVISIBILITY. Copyright © 2019 by Kevin Mitnick with Robert Vamosi, Foreword by Mikko Hypponen.Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.