Published in 2007, The Art of Deception by Kevin D. Mitnick presents the idea of social engineering as the key to successful computer hacking. Widely considered to be one of the most notorious hackers of the 80’s and 90’s, Mitnick knows rather a lot about this area. The premise of the book is that humans are conditioned to please, to be polite and trusting. For those working in the service fields, even more so. Which, in Mitnick’s mind, creates a multitude of opportunities for the zealous hacker. Why spend countless hours writing code, when you can just convince someone to share a password? It turns out that for many hackers, writing code is the last resort to breaking security measures.
While I haven’t read the book, I found the concept fascinating, and all too believable. We’ve all met that person, that guy or gal that could sell anything to anyone. They just seem to project a vibe that’s oh-so-hard to resist. You watch them work a group or roomful of people, and you realize, “Wow, that’s a gift. A terrifying gift.” Sometimes, that guy or gal crosses a line, and moves from demonstrating uber skill to something else altogether. (In my case, I then feel like I want a long, hot shower because there’s something vaguely slimy about the vibe.) But, we can watch these guys and gals and they’re so often successful at getting the information, the sale, the whatever they’re after. It’s all done by preying on the natural tendencies most of us have, or the tendencies that were drilled into us by our families, to be polite and kind and helpful.
As a reader, I’m impressed by the authors that can write these characters with authenticity. We discussed in a previous post that it’s important not to end up with cartoon-like villains; likewise, it’s tough to write the evil wheeler-dealer types (again, as compared to those ethical and talented sales people, negotiators, etc.) without them becoming caricatures. (Then again, to the jaded among us, they may seem like caricatures in real life, too!) Where is that line? It will vary some by reader, of course, but in general, where is that line? I don’t have an answer. Perhaps the line moves based on how the story is constructed, as well as how the protagonist has developed. A Kinsey Millhone will not be easily swayed, but the receptionist as her old insurance company might. Eve Dallas tolerates little in the way of wheeler-dealer types, but the early Peabody would definitely overshare in her desire to be kind and helpful.
I don’t have enough of these in my WIP, either the evil wheeler-dealer or the naive, helpful, kind types, but after a few weeks of deception, I find myself pretty excited to begin working on them!