Born: November 30, 1965, Pasadena, California
Kevin Poulsen grew up in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. At sixteen he was given his first computer, a Radio Shack TRS-80. As a boy he seemed to possess all the stereotypical traits of the “typical hacker.” He was said to be shy, thin, have braces and possess an IQ in the 140 range.
Growing up he loved to frequent L.A.’s free telephone party chat lines where he met others who shared his interest in J.R.R. Tolkien and other fantasy novelists. Sometimes the Valley area kids who frequented these chat lines would even meet up in person at a local pizza parlor.
Just as with fellow Angeleno Kevin Mitnick, he became a hardcore “phreaker,” someone who revels in understanding and manipulating the inner workings of telephone systems–everything from getting free long distance phone calls to learning how to create wiretaps. [Editor’s Note: Other than the fact that authorities eventually used the same informant, Justin Peterson, to help track the two “Kevins,” Mitnick and Poulsen, down, it’s unclear whether the two ever crossed paths during their “hacking” days.]
Poulsen went to an alternative “hippy” high school called Valley Alternative Magnet in Van Nuys, where kids were given the freedom to essentially create their own curriculum. He mostly chose to play Dungeons and Dragons, and would eventually drop out after completing the 11th grade.
As a hacker he went under the name “Dark Dante” and was eventually hacking into the Pentagon funded ARPANET, the foundation of the internet. Once inside the network, Poulsen successfully guessed passwords and retrieved highly sensitive documents, but gave himself away when he mistakenly logged on with his real name bringing himself to the attention of authorities. Poulsen kept up his hacking pursuits not knowing he had been noticed.
On September 22, 1983, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, now onto him, confiscated Poulsen’s $200 Radio Shack computer. Since he was underage he wasn’t charged and let off with a warning. But like the similarly obsessed Mitnick, he continued to hack compulsively.
He was an expert at picking locks and dumpster diving, and his modus operandi was to break into phone companies and steal manuals and other gear that would help him go deeper into computer networks.
Eventually Poulsen was hired as a “security expert” and programmer by a Silicon Valley technology company with government contracts called SRI International where he was legally paid to “hack” for the government by day, and at night he was able to pursue his black hat hacking.
In 1988 a storage locker that Poulsen had neglected payments on leased under the name “John Anderson” was opened and a trove of computer and telephone equipment as well as “locksmith tools, false ID blanks and birth certificates” were discovered. Authorities also found a phone number for the Soviet Embassy, which made them think he might be a spy. They also found his real name written on several items in the storage locker along with photographs taken of Poulsen in the act of breaking into a telephone company trailer. They soon learned that someone with Poulsen’s physical description was seen entering into several telephone facilities with a false ID, where he had accessed information that would help him break into more computer systems.
By the time of his November 1989 indictment he was accused of invading classified military computers, stealing the unlisted telephone numbers of the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco, and routinely breaching Pacific Bell’s systems. He was also charged with stealing documents about secret Ft. Bragg army exercises and obtaining unlisted phone numbers of people like Ferdinand Marcos (the Philippines dictator). He was also able to find out secret information like what mobsters were being wiretapped by the FBI and was said to have wiretapped the phone calls of a “Hollywood starlet.”
Rather than face the charges Poulsen vanished from his North Hollywood home and went “on the lam” for a year and half. As a prankster he would call the authorities and taunt them for “letting him” escape, and when they traced the phone number back it would come back to Pacific Bell’s inner circuit, baffling authorities.
His most famous exploit occurred in the early 1990s while a fugitive. The radio station 102.5 KIIS-FM was holding a contest where the winner had to be the correct numbered caller, which was 102. Poulsen determined to win, using his ninja level skills as a phreaker was able to jam the phone lines making himself the only person who could get through. He won $20k in cash and a Porsche 944 S2 Cabriolet. In fact, in one two year span, Poulsen and his accomplices had run similar scams at other L.A. based radio stations KPWR-FM and KRTH-FM, and in total between the three stations had won two Porsches, $22k in cash and two trips to Hawaii.
On October 10, 1990, Unsolved Mysteries aired a piece about him as a fugitive. In April 1991, Poulsen was finally apprehended in a Sherman Oaks Hughes supermarket when he was tackled by two store clerks after the store’s manager had recognized him from the airing of the show. His hair had been died blond as a disguise.
After Poulsen was arrested he supposedly began to cry and asked the FBI agents if he could get his glasses from his bag. Searching the bag first an agent discovered a handcuff key in his glasses case.
In June 1994, Poulsen pled guilty to several counts of mail, wire and computer fraud and money laundering. He was sentenced to 51 months in prison (at the time the harshest ever sentence for a computer hacker) and ordered to pay $58k in fines/restitution. He was also banned from using computers after his release from prison.
After the computer ban was rescinded he became a journalist working for SecurityFocus as their Editorial Director where he “broke” hacking stories of national significance. Over the year he has worked for both Wired and the Daily Beast. In 2006 he wrote software that combed through MySpace and discovered hundreds of registered sex offenders. The work led to “significant policy” changes at MySpace. He also reported major stories to do with the FBI’s use of spyware on suspects, as well as serious investigative work on WikiLeaks and Chelsea Manning.
In 2011, Poulsen and Aaron Swartz teamed up to create SecureDrop (then known as DeadDrop), a platform that lets journalists and sources communicate securely.
As of today (March 2019), he is a sought after public speaker . . .
- Poulsen wrote a true crime novel called Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion Dollar Cybercrime Underground.
- U.S. law enforcement supposedly nicknamed Poulsen the “Hannibal Lecter of computer crime.”
- When Unsolved Mysteries aired the episode about him, the phone lines mysteriously went dead, it was never proven that Poulsen had anything to do with it.
- A book was written about Kevin Poulsen called The Watchman: The Twisted Life and Crimes of Serial Hacker Kevin Poulsen by Jon Littman. Poulsen is said to have disliked the book.
Sources Used For This Article
- Appknox – How Kevin Poulsen Became One Of The World’s Best Cybersecurity Hackers
- Living Internet – Kevin Poulsen
- Speaking.com – Kevin Poulsen Profile
- L.A. Times – Computer Ace Indicted in Tapping of U.S. Network
- NNDB – Kevin Poulsen
- L.A. Times – The Last Hacker : He Called Himself Dark Dante. His Compulsion Led Him to Secret Files and, Eventually, the Bar of Justice
- L.A. Times – LOS ANGELES : Hacker Gets 51 Months in Radio Contest Scam
- Unsolved Mysteries – Wiki – Kevin Poulsen
- Wired.com – ROGUE HACKERS GALLERY
- Keppler Speakers – Kevin Poulsen – Cybercrime Expert and Author of “Kingpin”
- Ars Technica – Turncoat hackers: a brief history of snitching in high-tech dragnets