Kevin Mitnick loved the cyberspace break-in game

Kevin Mitnick on Anonymous and LulzSec, and how he thinks the government overreacted to his exploits

Topics: Hacking, Internet Culture,

Kevin Mitnick loved the cyberspace break-in game

In a summer replete with computer-hacking scandals — many of them at the hands of the collectives Anonymous and LulzSec — the adventures of Kevin Mitnick seem of a different time altogether. 

In the early ’90s — the era of the primitive dial-up modem — the prodigious computer whiz used a combination of technical prowess and social trickery to hack into the servers of some of the world’s biggest companies. By convincing the unsuspecting that he was somebody else, he insinuated his way into valuable information, which he could then use to crack ostensibly impenetrable security systems. It’s a story that evokes the whimsy of “Catch Me If You Can” more than it does our traditional image of computer hackers — darkened silhouettes furiously typing in a dark basement, tired eyes affixed to a rapid scrawl of green characters across a half-dozen monitors.

Mitnick’s cyber-social acrobatics made him a hot target for the FBI, who pursued him for years. Only by assuming false identities and cleverly covering his tracks did he evade the authorities. He was finally arrested in 1995, and four years later he pleaded guilty to wire fraud, identity theft and computer fraud. Then came eight months in solitary confinement — he says because prosecutors convinced a judge that he could trigger a nuclear emergency by whistling into a phone

Under his parole agreement, Mitnick could not profit from his story in book or film form for seven years. Now, more than a decade after his release from prison, his memoir, “Ghost in the Wires,” (co-written with William Simon) is on bookshelves.

Salon spoke with Mitnick earlier this week to learn more about his story, his philosophy and his views on the modern hacker movement:

One of the things that fascinated people about your story was your social engineering — how you used your social savvy to convince people to give you the information you wanted. Was it easy for you?

It’s not so easy. When you’re doing these social engineering attacks, you have to be fast on your feet. You have to think about a story that’s going to be believable. You have to change people’s perceptions about what’s going on in the background to increase trust and credibility.

For example, when I’d be social engineering the phone company — when you’d call the business office at Pacific Telephone way back when, they’d give you advertisements instead of Muzak on hold. So, when I’d call these different phone company offices, I’d say, “Hold on for one second, I have another call coming in,” and I’d put them on hold and play the loop tape of their own advertisements. Then I’d come back on the line and start talking.

Immediately, subliminally, it seems like I’m really with the phone company, and I never said anything. It’s just using these types of techniques to build trust and credibility. I was really good at thinking how to do this. I was also really good at acting. I was able to develop the script on the fly. And that made me really successful.

Both social engineering and technical attacks played a big part in what I was able to do. It was a hybrid. I used social engineering when it was appropriate, and exploited technical vulnerabilities when it was appropriate.

How did you first get interested in this stuff? How’d you start developing your skill set?

The funny thing is, when I started hacking, it was a different era. In 1980 I was a senior in high school, and I tried to get into computer-science class. One of the first assignments was to write a program to find the first 100 Fibonacci numbers. I thought it would be cooler to get people’s passwords, so I wrote a program that simulated the computer system at school — when students would sign into the computer, they would actually be talking to my program, pretending to be the computer.

Because I was monkeying around with this program for so long, I didn’t get the assignment done. So, I showed the teacher my password-stealing program instead, and I actually got an A. He told the class how cool it was. And these were the ethics taught when I was growing up. Hacking was a cool thing, even stealing passwords. That was kind of how I started. Then, of course, the world changed around me.

I got so passionate about technology. Hacking to me was like a video game. It was about getting trophies. I just kept going on and on, despite all the trouble I was getting into, because I was hooked. I was addicted to hacking, more for the intellectual challenge, the curiosity, the seduction of adventure; not for stealing, or causing damage or writing computer viruses. This trend today of hacking to steal credit-card numbers has unfortunately changed the definition of what a hacker is today.

That actually segues into my next question, about Anonymous and LulzSec. Those two groups have garnered a lot of media attention for their exploits over the past several months. And I think what really interests people is how these groups combine high-minded activism with this puckish, pranky and arguably destructive approach.

I think what we have here is different factions: Because LulzSec became so popular — they got 300,000 Twitter followers and a highly trafficked website — they were kind of the pinnacle of civil disobedience. Originally maybe their motivation was to send a political message, that they were unhappy with Sony, that they were unhappy with the federal government.

What I think happened here was they got so much media attention and it bumped up their endorphin rush so much that they couldn’t resist. And I think there developed factions of Operation Anti-Sec [an ongoing collaboration between Anonymous and LulzSec] based on the media attention that LulzSec was getting. Everyone wanted to jump on the bandwagon.

Now it’s becoming more like cyber-extortion. There should be more socially acceptable ways for these guys to state their political messages. They used to just deface a website, but now its dropping “dox,” which means getting into a company’s internal sites and dropping confidential information.

And then you have kids who don’t know how to mask their identities attacking targets as part of the Anti-Sec movement, and they’re the ones getting arrested and prosecuted. The real guys behind this, I don’t think they’re getting prosecuted because they’re a little bit better at anonymizing their connection on the Internet.

You talk a lot in the book about how you felt that the legal system overreacted to your exploits.

It’s true, I had hacked into a lot of companies, and took copies of the source code to analyze it for security bugs. If I could locate security bugs, I could become better at hacking into their systems. It was all towards becoming a better hacker.

But the government’s theory — because they wanted to put me away for as long as possible — was that if I copied the source code to Solaris, for example, which was one of Sun’s flagship operating systems, that Sun lost their entire research and development investment in Solaris, which was millions and millions of dollars.

A good analogy is if I get caught stealing a can of Coke from 7-Eleven, and I get prosecuted for stealing Coca-Cola’s formula. It’s a big difference.

It wasn’t that I took the position that I didn’t deserve to be punished, or that I was doing the right thing. It’s my position that the harm was greatly exaggerated so that the government could send a message.

And do you think that kind of overreaction has instilled a misunderstanding about hacking within the general public?

Oh, yeah! A case in point with LulzSec: They did an attack against the CIA’s public facing website. This was low-tech stuff. A 15-year-old could do it. And then I get calls from the media, saying, “Oh, the CIA was hacked.” Which was a complete misunderstanding of what actually happened. The one news organization puts it on the Web, and then all the others follow along, and it snowballs into something crazy.

What do you think the danger in this is?

It’s the danger of informing the public incorrectly. Reporters don’t fact-check, or they want the sensational story, and they salivate when they hear that the CIA was hacked. “Ooh, what secret information did they get? What are they going to pass on to WikiLeaks?” (That was a serious hack. That was the No. 1 security failure of the USA, what Bradley Manning was able to do.)

But what happens is these misreported stories are repeated, and it just communicates inaccurate information to the public at large. I read an article about me today and it says, “In 1983, Kevin Mitnick hacked into NORAD.” And, in 1983, the movie “War Games” was released, about a character played by Matthew Broderick hacking into NORAD. Twenty years later it’s the same myth.

Peter Finocchiaro is a senior editor at Salon. Follow him on Twitter @PLFino.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>