Entries Tagged "A Hacker's Mind"

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Kevin Mitnick Hacked California Law in 1983

Early in his career, Kevin Mitnick successfully hacked California law. He told me the story when he heard about my new book, which he partially recounts his 2012 book, Ghost in the Wires.

The setup is that he just discovered that there’s warrant for his arrest by the California Youth Authority, and he’s trying to figure out if there’s any way out of it.

As soon as I was settled, I looked in the Yellow Pages for the nearest law school, and spent the next few days and evenings there poring over the Welfare and Institutions Code, but without much hope.

Still, hey, “Where there’s a will…” I found a provision that said that for a nonviolent crime, the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court expired either when the defendant turned twenty-one or two years after the commitment date, whichever occurred later. For me, that would mean two years from February 1983, when I had been sentenced to the three years and eight months.

Scratch, scratch. A little arithmetic told me that this would occur in about four months. I thought, What if I just disappear until their jurisdiction ends?

This was the Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. This was a lot of manual research—no search engines in those days. He researched the relevant statutes, and case law that interpreted those statutes. He made copies of everything to hand to his attorney.

I called my attorney to try out the idea on him. His response sounded testy: “You’re absolutely wrong. It’s a fundamental principle of law that if a defendant disappears when there’s a warrant out for him, the time limit is tolled until he’s found, even if it’s years later.”

And he added, “You have to stop playing lawyer. I’m the lawyer. Let me do my job.”

I pleaded with him to look into it, which annoyed him, but he finally agreed. When I called back two days later, he had talked to my Parole Officer, Melvin Boyer, the compassionate guy who had gotten me transferred out of the dangerous jungle at LA County Jail. Boyer had told him, “Kevin is right. If he disappears until February 1985, there’ll be nothing we can do. At that point the warrant will expire, and he’ll be off the hook.”

So he moved to Northern California and lived under an assumed name for four months.

What’s interesting to me is how he approaches legal code in the same way a hacker approaches computer code: pouring over the details, looking for a bug—a mistake—leading to an exploitable vulnerability. And this was in the days before you could do any research online. He’s spending days in the law school library.

This is exactly the sort of thing I am writing about in A Hacker’s Mind. Legal code isn’t the same as computer code, but it’s a series of rules with inputs and outputs. And just like computer code, legal code has bugs. And some of those bugs are also vulnerabilities. And some of those vulnerabilities can be exploited—just as Mitnick learned.

Mitnick was a hacker. His attorney was not.

Posted on January 27, 2023 at 3:19 PMView Comments

Publisher’s Weekly Review of A Hacker’s Mind

Publisher’s Weekly reviewed A Hacker’s Mind—and it’s a starred review!

“Hacking is something that the rich and powerful do, something that reinforces existing power structures,” contends security technologist Schneier (Click Here to Kill Everybody) in this excellent survey of exploitation. Taking a broad understanding of hacking as an “activity allowed by the system that subverts the… system,” Schneier draws on his background analyzing weaknesses in cybersecurity to examine how those with power take advantage of financial, legal, political, and cognitive systems. He decries how venture capitalists “hack” market dynamics by subverting the pressures of supply and demand, noting that venture capital has kept Uber afloat despite the company having not yet turned a profit. Legal loopholes constitute another form of hacking, Schneier suggests, discussing how the inability of tribal courts to try non-Native individuals means that many sexual assaults of Native American women go unprosecuted because they were committed by non-Native American men. Schneier outlines strategies used by corporations to capitalize on neural processes and “hack… our attention circuits,” pointing out how Facebook’s algorithms boost content that outrages users because doing so increases engagement. Elegantly probing the mechanics of exploitation, Schneier makes a persuasive case that “we need society’s rules and laws to be as patchable as your computer.” With lessons that extend far beyond the tech world, this has much to offer.

The book will be published on February 7. Here’s the book’s webpage. You can pre-order a signed copy from me here.

Posted on January 21, 2023 at 7:18 AMView Comments

Booklist Review of A Hacker’s Mind

Booklist reviews A Hacker’s Mind:

Author and public-interest security technologist Schneier (Data and Goliath, 2015) defines a “hack” as an activity allowed by a system “that subverts the rules or norms of the system […] at the expense of someone else affected by the system.” In accessing the security of a particular system, technologists such as Schneier look at how it might fail. In order to counter a hack, it becomes necessary to think like a hacker. Schneier lays out the ramifications of a variety of hacks, contrasting the hacking of the tax code to benefit the wealthy with hacks in realms such as sports that can innovate and change a game for the better. The key to dealing with hacks is being proactive and providing adequate patches to fix any vulnerabilities. Schneier’s fascinating work illustrates how susceptible many systems are to being hacked and how lives can be altered by these subversions. Schneier’s deep dive into this cross-section of technology and humanity makes for investigative gold.

The book will be published on February 7. Here’s the book’s webpage. You can pre-order a signed copy from me here.

Posted on January 14, 2023 at 11:29 AMView Comments

Hacking Trespass Law

This article talks about public land in the US that is completely surrounded by private land, which in some cases makes it inaccessible to the public. But there’s a hack:

Some hunters have long believed, however, that the publicly owned parcels on Elk Mountain can be legally reached using a practice called corner-crossing.

Corner-crossing can be visualized in terms of a checkerboard. Ever since the Westward Expansion, much of the Western United States has been divided into alternating squares of public and private land. Corner-crossers, like checker pieces, literally step from one public square to another in diagonal fashion, avoiding trespassing charges. The practice is neither legal nor illegal. Most states discourage it, but none ban it.

It’s an interesting ambiguity in the law: does checker trespass on white squares when it moves diagonally over black squares? But, of course, the legal battle isn’t really about that. It’s about the rights of property owners vs the rights of those who wish to walk on this otherwise-inaccessible public land.

This particular hack will be adjudicated in court. State court, I think, which means the answer might be different in different states. It’s not an example I discuss in my new book, but it’s similar to many I do discuss. It’s the act of adjudicating hacks that allows systems to evolve.

Posted on December 9, 2022 at 3:02 PMView Comments

First Review of A Hacker’s Mind

Kirkus reviews A Hacker’s Mind:

A cybersecurity expert examines how the powerful game whatever system is put before them, leaving it to others to cover the cost.

Schneier, a professor at Harvard Kennedy School and author of such books as Data and Goliath and Click Here To Kill Everybody, regularly challenges his students to write down the first 100 digits of pi, a nearly impossible task­—but not if they cheat, concerning which he admonishes, “Don’t get caught.” Not getting caught is the aim of the hackers who exploit the vulnerabilities of systems of all kinds. Consider right-wing venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who located a hack in the tax code: “Because he was one of the founders of PayPal, he was able to use a $2,000 investment to buy 1.7 million shares of the company at $0.001 per share, turning it into $5 billion—all forever tax free.” It was perfectly legal—and even if it weren’t, the wealthy usually go unpunished. The author, a fluid writer and tech communicator, reveals how the tax code lends itself to hacking, as when tech companies like Apple and Google avoid paying billions of dollars by transferring profits out of the U.S. to corporate-friendly nations such as Ireland, then offshoring the “disappeared” dollars to Bermuda, the Caymans, and other havens. Every system contains trap doors that can be breached to advantage. For example, Schneier cites “the Pudding Guy,” who hacked an airline miles program by buying low-cost pudding cups in a promotion that, for $3,150, netted him 1.2 million miles and “lifetime Gold frequent flier status.” Since it was all within the letter if not the spirit of the offer, “the company paid up.” The companies often do, because they’re gaming systems themselves. “Any rule can be hacked,” notes the author, be it a religious dietary restriction or a legislative procedure. With technology, “we can hack more, faster, better,” requiring diligent monitoring and a demand that everyone play by rules that have been hardened against tampering.

An eye-opening, maddening book that offers hope for leveling a badly tilted playing field.

I got a starred review. Libraries make decisions on what to buy based on starred reviews. Publications make decisions about what to review based on starred reviews. This is a big deal.

Book’s webpage.

Posted on November 18, 2022 at 1:08 PMView Comments

New Book: A Hacker’s Mind

I have a new book coming out in February. It’s about hacking.

A Hacker’s Mind: How the Powerful Bend Society’s Rules, and How to Bend them Back isn’t about hacking computer systems; it’s about hacking more general economic, political, and social systems. It generalizes the term hack as a means of subverting a system’s rules in unintended ways.

What sorts of system? Any system of rules, really. Take the tax code, for example. It’s not computer code, but it’s a series of algorithms—supposedly deterministic—that take a bunch of inputs about your income and produce an output that’s the amount of money you owe. This code has vulnerabilities; we call them loopholes. It has exploits; those are tax avoidance strategies. And there is an entire industry of black-hat hackers who exploit vulnerabilities in the tax code: we call them accountants and tax attorneys.

In my conception, a “hack” is something a system permits, but is unanticipated and unwanted by its designers. It’s unplanned: a mistake in the system’s design or coding. It’s subversion, or an exploitation. It’s a cheat—but only sort of. Just as a computer vulnerability can be exploited over the Internet because the code permits it, a tax loophole is “allowed” by the system because it follows the rules, even though it might subvert the intent of those rules.

Once you start thinking of hacking in this way, you’ll start seeing hacks everywhere. You can find hacks in professional sports, in customer reward programs, in financial systems, in politics; in lots of economic, political, and social systems; against our cognitive functions. A curved hockey stick is a hack, and we know the name of the hacker who invented it. Airline frequent-flier mileage runs are a hack. The filibuster was originally a hack, invented by Cato the Younger, A Roman senator in 60 BCE. Hedge funds are full of hacks.

A system is just a set of rules. Or norms, since the “rules” aren’t always formal. And even the best-thought-out sets of rules will be incomplete or inconsistent. It’ll have ambiguities, and things the designers haven’t thought of. As long as there are people who want to subvert the goals of a system, there will be hacks.

I use this framework in A Hacker’s Mind to tease out a lot of why today’s economic, political, and social systems are failing us so badly, and apply what we have learned about hacking defenses in the computer world to those more general hacks. And I end by looking at artificial intelligence, and what will happen when AIs start hacking. Not the problems of hacking AI, which are both ubiquitous and super weird, but what happens when an AI is able to discover new hacks against these more general systems. What happens when AIs find tax loopholes, or loopholes in financial regulations. We have systems in place to deal with these sorts of hacks, but they were invented when hackers were human and reflect the human pace of hack discovery. They won’t be able to withstand an AI finding dozens, or hundreds, of loopholes in financial regulations. We’re simply not ready for the speed, scale, scope, and sophistication of AI hackers.

A Hacker’s Mind is my pandemic book, written in 2020 and 2021. It represents another step in my continuing journey of increasing generalizations. And I really like the cover. It will be published on February 7. It makes an excellent belated holiday gift. Order yours today and avoid the rush.

Posted on November 11, 2022 at 2:11 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.