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Review: The Art of Invisibility

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Given the recent media attention paid to surveillance, technology, wire tapping, and technical tomfoolery, we should all strive to improve our security practices. Even if you’re not a bad guy, privacy is still a precious resource to be protected.

That’s Kevin Mitnick’s argument in 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, co-written by Robert Vamosi. As stated in the Foreward, written by Mikko Hypponen, privacy was recognized as a fundamental human right by the United Nations in 1948. It does not only concern criminals or dissidents or “something to hide.” Instead, it affects all of us.

And, no matter how safe we think we are, we’re still vulnerable. Mitnick writes that “this book will make you aware of ways to be private within the digital world and offer solutions…”

The problem is that the book isn’t sure what it is. It’s not a straight forward, how-to, prescriptive book. But it’s not a memoir or narrative nonfiction book either. While educational for this particular reader (I’d say I’m moderately tech savvy, but far from an expert) it’s not especially easy to grasp for a true novice. And at a cover price of $28, it ain’t cheap either.

It looks like a memoir or narrative nonfiction. The Art of Invisibility is published by Little, Brown and Company, not a techie press like O’Reilly. It’s a hardback with a serious looking cover. There is one illustration in the book, so it doesn’t have the multi-formatting design of the Dummies books or other software manuals. But while it looks like a memoir or narrative nonfiction, it’s not as compelling as one.

For the majority of the book, it’s a seemingly endless litany of all the ways that you can be watched. Here’s the formula.

“You might have read some headlines about how your phones can be surveilled. You didn’t know the half of it, they can also X, Y, and Z.”

Then, follow that with, “In addition to your phones, your home computing can also give up personal details. The bad guys can X, Y, and Z.”

Then, follow that with, “It’s not only your phone and your home computing, but also your car. Did you know that they can X, Y, and Z with your car?”

Then follow that with, “As if tapping into your phone, your home computing, and your car wasn’t scary enough, they can also get your social media.”

On and on and on. This basic formula of vulnerability gets repetitive by about the fifth cycle. If only he’d worked in some spying microwaves.

In too many cases, the impact of the vulnerability doesn’t seem that bad. Yes, there are scenarios where SWAT kicks in doors and throws flash grenades into the wrong house because the neighbor was stealing wireless network access. But just as frequently, the scary scenarios just aren’t that scary.

“Back in the days when Netflix primarily sent out DVDs, I knew a couple who got pranked,” Mitnick writes. “During a party at their house, they’d left their browser open to their Netflix account. Afterward, the couple found that all sorts of raunchy B- and C-list movies had been added to their queue–but only after they’d received more than one of these films in the mail.”

Awful.

In another case Mitnick cites, a fiancee connected his future wife to his iCloud account. As a result of seeing old photos from old relationships in the cloud, “there were restaurants where his fiancee refused to go to because she had seen photos of other women there with him, at that table by the window or in that corner booth.”

Horrifying.

So the stories aren’t that great, which runs counter to the physical impression the book gives about being more narrative, compelling nonfiction. But with less than five step-by-step or bulleted lists of actions in the book, it doesn’t appear to be a prescriptive how-to either. Sure, there are loads of useful tips, but they’re not visually noticeable or easy to refer to later.

Seemingly insignificant concerns like a Caged Passion: Hot Women Penitentiary II DVD appearing in the mailbox would give the impression this book is written for beginners. But then you get instructions like this:

“Go to the Start button, type “CMD,” click “Command Prompt,” and at the inverted caret, type “ICONFIG.” The machine will return a long list of data, but the MAC address should be there, and it will consist of twelve hexadecimal characters with every two characters separated by a colon.”

Here’s another:

“Download Tails onto a DVD or USB stick, then set your BIOS firmware or EFI (OSX) initial boot sequence for either DVD or USB to boot the Tails distribution. When you boot, it will start up the operating system, which features several privacy tools, including the Tor browser. The privacy tools allow you to encrypt e-mail using PGP, encrypt your USB and hard drives, and secure your messages with OTR (off-the-record messaging).”

Not impossible to decipher by any means. But my mom ain’t following that shit, no matter how scandalized she might be about Roger Corman movies coming in the mail. So is the book for beginners or experienced folks? No telling.

There are a couple of engaging stories from Mitnick’s personal life where you get a bit of a charge as a reader. Once, he uses his social engineering and hacking skills to scare an idiot driver encountered on a highway. In other instances, there are cool sneak peeks into the underground world of hackers when he describes forums where password breaking tools and other nefarious bits of software are available.

Ultimately, there are useful tips in The Art of Invisibility by Kevin Mitnick. Like most people, I still remain far from being a virtual Fort Knox, but there were definitely some tips that I’ve implemented. I just wish I had a better experience getting to them.

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