Kevin Mitnick was born on August 6, 1963 in Van Nuys, California, and describes himself during these early years as a “a happy-go-lucky kid, but bored.” His first great passion was magic, and as a young boy he became deeply interested in radio technologies as both a ham operator and an amateur radio operator.
His parents were divorced at an early age and with his mother working long hours as a waitress with an “erratic” schedule he had the freedom to begin exploring the greater Los Angeles area on his own.
His first exploits were observing the way the hole punches were formatted on paper bus transfers and learning how to manipulate them so that he could ride free virtually anywhere on the Los Angeles bus system. He also began dumpster diving near the local bus station depot to find unused transfer slips.
With a combined passion for technology, social engineering (although at the time it had no such name yet) and magic, by the time he entered high school he began “phreaking,” which in it’s most basic meaning is a term used for hackers who manipulate telecommunications systems to make free phone calls. Eventually Mitnick went WAY beyond just making free phone calls.
A phone phreak is someone who loves exploring the telephone system and experimenting with it to understand how it works. Phone phreaking got its start in the late 1950s. Its golden age was the late 1960s and early 1970s – The History of Phone Phreaking
Soon finding peers who were also interested in phreaking, Mitnick and his cohorts began diving deep into the world of the telephone companies. They began learning specific phone company terminology, using social engineering to obtain information from the phone company on its customers and pranking fellow phreakers by having their phone services switched. He could also access top secret phone numbers and was able to have employees of Pacific Bell set up and disable wiretaps. This hobby became an obsession for young Mitnick.
By the time he was seventeen Mitnick “had developed [his] social engineering skills to the point that . . . [he] was able to talk most Telco employees into almost anything, whether [he] was speaking with them in person or by telephone.”
His obsession with cracking the mysteries of phone companies along with strong computer skills and expert social engineering chops, eventually led him to go beyond phreaking towards full scale hacking. This is where Mitnick began having scrapes with the law: In 1981, as a 17 year old juvenile, he was given probation for stealing computer manuals from Pacific Bell and a year later he was convicted off breaking into University of Southern California computers and jailed for six months.
After high school he studied computers at the Computer Learning Center, where he quickly proved to be vastly more knowledgeable than the teachers after gaining full administrative access to the IBM minicomputers at the location. Mitnick was made a offer: Either be suspended from the school or help tighten up the school’s computer system’s security. He, of course, chose the latter.
In 1987 he was again arrested for “computer fraud” for breaking into The Santa Cruz Operation, a software publisher’s computer systems and was handed down fines and probation.
His scrapes with the law didn’t diminish his obsession on any level and Mitnick continued to hack obsessively.
Mitnick really began to get notice from the authorities and others in the cyber security world when in 1989 he was arrested and convicted of hacking into MCI and stealing $1 million dollars of proprietary software from DEC (Digital Equipment Corp). For that he was sentenced to one year in a low security prison (mostly spent in a halfway house for people with compulsive behavior) and was placed on probation for three years.
In 1992 Mitnick realizing that investigators were on to him for his hacks into Pacific Bell’s voice mail systems, used his technical and social engineering skills to set up traps on the agents in his case. He was also a master of listening in on police radio transmissions to detect whether the authorities were on to him. At a certain point he even left a box of Dunkin’ Donuts for FBI agents who he knew would be raiding his apartments.
He spent the next three years as a fugitive, where he eventually landed in Denver, Colorado going under the alias Erik Weisz–An homage to Harry Houdini (real name Erich Weisz) and a nod to his first love, magic. While on the run he continued to work in IT and was even given the nickname “resident hacker” by one set employers who had no idea that he was the FBI’s “Most Wanted Hacker,” Kevin Mitnick.
His undoing came as a result of “infuriating” systems expert Sutomu Shimomura, after Mitnick had broken into Shimomura’s computer and stolen information from him and who then made it a “crusade” to track Mitnick down. Shimomura, the cyber sleuth, aided by the FBI and telephone company technicians was able to track Mitnick down.
After eluding the FBI manhunt for years and creating “a lot of frustration inside the bureau,” He was eventually apprehended in 1995 at an apartment in Raleigh, North Carolina. In his possession were cloned cell phones and many pieces of fake identification.
Upon meeting his dogged pursuer Tsutomu Shimomura at his 1995 arraignment hearing Mitnick said, “Hello, Tsutomu. I respect your skills.”
In 1999, after spending four and a half years in pre-trial custody, Mitnick pled guilty to “four counts of wire fraud, two counts of computer fraud and one count of illegally intercepting a wire communication.” He spent a grand total of five years in prison, of which 8 months were spent in solitary confinement after the government convinced the judge in his case that Mitnick was capable of starting a nuclear war via whistling into a pay phone through somehow hacking into NORAD.
He was released on January 21, 2000.
Since then Mitnick has become a successful lecturer and “white hat” systems security consultant, even testifying in front of Congress on how the federal government could secure their IT systems. He is now the CEO of Mitnick Security Consulting where he and The Global Ghost Team™ boast a “100 percent successful track record of being able to penetrate the security of any system they are paid to hack into using a combination of technical exploits and social engineering.”
He has authored/co-authored several books on social engineering, hacking and information security as well as an autobiography.
His works include:
- The Art of Deception: Controlling the Human Element of Security,
- The Art of Intrusion: The Real Stories Behind the Exploits of Hackers, Intruders and Deceivers,
- Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker
- 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.
- His lawyers convinced the Judge to let him serve his first lengthy prison sentence in a halfway house for people with “compulsive disorders.”
- It was said that in 1982 at the age of 17 Mitnick hacked into NORAD (North American Defense Command), which was the supposed basis/inspiration for the movie War Games with Matthew Broderick. Mitnick claims this along with the rumor that he “wiretapped” the FBI is a myth.
- As a security consultant for over 20 years he says that employing social engineering he has never NOT been able to “compromise a company.”
- The adjectives Mitnick uses to describe his hacking years are “thrilling,” “adventurous” and like a “huge game.”
- His advice to young hackers: “Don’t follow in my footsteps.”
- Mitnick was a friend of the so called “Homeless Hacker,” Adrian Lamo.
Sources Used For This Article:
- CNET.com – Q&A: Kevin Mitnick, from ham operator to fugitive to consultant
- CNN – The trials of Kevin Mitnick
- Big Think – Hacker for the Hell of It: The Adventures of Kevin Mitnick
- The Denver Post – Kevin ‘Mitnick was the FBI’s most wanted hacker in the ’90s. He was hiding in plain sight in Denver’
- Mitnick Security Consulting – About Kevin Mitnick CEO, Team Leader, and Chief White Hat Hacker
- Wikipedia – Kevin Mitnick
- History of Phone Phreaking – The History of Phone Phreaking
- Wired.com – CATCHING KEVIN
- The Register – Chapter One: Kevin Mitnick’s story
- NY Times – Cyberspace’s Most Wanted: Hacker Eludes F.B.I. Pursuit
- NY Times – A Most-Wanted Cyberthief Is Caught in His Own Web
- Silicon Republic – Renowned hacker Kevin Mitnick on his rollercoaster career