A conversation with John Markoff

Published December 30, 1995 12:38PM (EST)

"Takedown" is told from Tsutomu Shimomura's first-person point of view, but between the two of you, you're the writer. How did that work?

We spent about a month together talking, and I did a lot of transcription. Then I wrote a draft in a couple of months, and spent another month rewriting. It was a collaborative effort, but the world view is clearly Tsutomu's. I was trying to capture Tsutomu's voice. The only way I knew how to approach it was as a reporter. I thought about writing it at one point in a Sam Spade style, but that just seemed too affected.

Tsutomu has an attitude. And it comes back to haunt him occasionally. He's abrupt. He doesn't suffer fools easily. He's really a smart guy, but he's not experienced in this world of the media -- it's been sort of a trial by fire for him.

It does seem that Shimomura looks down on everyone -- even you.

I think Tsutomu is going to take some arrows for that, and I suppose it will be a learning process for him. I mean, this is a very honest book. This is Tsutomu Shimomura with warts. And some of the things that are his strengths are also his weaknesses. He's been exposed in a very public way that he didn't ever seek out.

The story climaxes with a dramatic confrontation between Shimomura and Mitnick at the arraignment. How did that feel?

Kevin walked in, in a charcoal sweatsuit, and he was manacled and handcuffed. It was depressing. It brought home the reality that this was not a game. That's one of the things that Tsutomu says -- it wasn't a game, somebody was going to jail.

I'd been following this guy's criminal career for 15 years. And I'd talked to him on the phone before. I'd never met him. But I didn't have an obsession with catching Kevin Mitnick, I didn't have any anger at him. One of the reasons that that confrontation between him and Tsutomu happened was that at the end of the hearing I walked up to him at the front. I just wanted to say, "Kevin, I hope things go well for you." And he didn't have much to say. He just looked at me and nodded.

After all the drama of the hunt online, the drab reality of that scene almost comes as a letdown. The words -- even a dramatic line like, "Tsutomu, I respect your skills" -- can't live up to a reader's expectations.

Yeah. Although -- I didn't understand this at the time -- but I believe now that that exchange between Tsutomu and Kevin Mitnick created this entire event. With my wonderful news sense, when I wrote that story, I was going to put it at the end, rather than on the front page of the paper! "Tsutomu, I respect your skills" -- I thought, perfect kicker. If the editors hadn't seen that and said it should be fronted, it would have been an entirely different outcome. But that made the imagery, right? In the mythic sense.

At the end of "Takedown" it's clear that Mitnick wasn't working alone, and that some of his cohorts are still at large.

Yes. The story's not over. To be honest, that's all I know. I know that the case is not finished. I believe there's still an investigation. I'm "conflicted out."

As in "conflict of interest"?

Yes. If anything happens, I'm not going to write about it.

You've been criticized for not mentioning, in your first story about the arrest, that your e-mail was being read.

There've been a lot of questions raised, and rightly so. I think I made a mistake, but I don't think it was a grievous error. It could have been handled properly in a parenthetical aside. My editors argued to put that in. But I thought that, because he was reading the e-mail of virtually anybody on the WELL, and dozens of reporters are on the WELL, I didn't need to single myself out. It was a wrong call.

Did the omission have anything to do with the traditional culture of the New York Times, in which reporters leave themselves out of their stories?

I can't blame the Times for this. I've always felt uncomfortable with first-person journalism, personally. I love Hunter Thompson, but I'm not Hunter Thompson. I was the one who was resisting my editors' notion of putting me into the story. Then they asked me for a first-person piece, and I did it kicking and screaming.

A lot of people are still scratching their heads, wondering just how big a threat Mitnick was.

Was Kevin Mitnick a national menace? No way. Was this a good yarn? I think so. I mean, it was an interesting sort of morality play for the information age we're moving into. Was Kevin Mitnick an information-age terrorist? No. His motivation is still a mystery to me. But I'll tell you one thing: he was an adult. He'd been arrested five times before. He had gone to jail three times before. He was systematically stealing software from dozens if not more computers around the Internet. He was targeting cellular telephone companies and stealing source code that major U.S. companies had spent millions of dollars developing. His motivations are not clear. He was tampering with the telephone network. He was costing Internet service providers tens of thousands of dollars or more just watching him -- and they were helpless to stop him.

I don't think you have to make the leap to say he was some grave terrorist. This guy was a hardened computer criminal. He is a guy who's been given many chances to get his act together. A lot has been made of whether or not he was "cyberspace's most wanted." I made that call when I wrote my first article in July, 1994, based on the fact that the U.S. Marshal service, the FBI, the California Department of Motor Vehicles, several local police departments and several telecommunications companies were all looking for him and couldn't find him. I think that's a good story -- end of case.

I've been sort of pinned with this conspiracy to catch Kevin. I wrote the first story because I was so intrigued with his ability to avoid these people. That first story had a modern Bonnie-and-Clyde aspect to it that I thought was revealing. The fact that people went nuts over the story -- that's something that I didn't expect. I don't fully comprehend the way the media works. But I didn't advertise him as a menace to the world -- just as a very persistent criminal. The words that I used to describe him were "Con man" and "grifter." I think that comes close to approximating what he did.

It's almost as if the "yarn"-ishness that you identified in the story is what took off. You covered it; your editors took it a step further and put it on the front page; and then the world turned and said, this is a good yarn -- let's see the book! And the movie!

I see that the media touches on certain events and they become mythic. I don't understand that process, or why. One that I've always been struck by is the creation of Apple Computer: two guys in a garage. It's a national myth. And the media still focuses years later on Apple Computer like no other computer company.

But I didn't think I was involved in myth creation. Every reporter looks for a good story. And to be honest, it may not be believable, but I thought that my 15 minutes of fame was with Robert Tappan Morris [whose "worm" brought the Internet to a standstill in 1988]. That was a great story that I broke, and it had this same kind of explosive interest. But nobody understood what the Net was at that point. Now, everybody's on the Net, and it's a much more personal experience.

In the wake of that story, I was really looking for new things -- I was trying to look at new technologies that aren't related to the Net in Silicon Valley. Internet reporting is the biggest pack-journalism event I've ever seen in my life, and I want nothing to do with it. I felt that way two years ago. But you can't get away from it -- I keep getting dragged back in.

What's the status of the movie deal?

Miramax bought the rights. Apparently they've selected writers -- I don't know who they are. The contract is done from my part and Tsutomu's, but apparently it's not quite all done. It's something, again, that I'm trying to distance myself from.

Are you afraid of how the story will mutate?

Yeah, kind of. But my training is as a social scientist. I'll watch it with great interest. I don't know what else to do.

One funny story: Miramax wanted to put out a press release after the deal, and they sent me a copy. It referred to Tsutomu Shimomura as "The James Bond of Cyberspace." So I called them up and said, you know, maybe Sherlock Holmes would be a better metaphor here. They said, no, nobody knows who Sherlock Holmes is. And I thought, okay, I understand where this is heading.

How do you think the popularizing of the Mitnick story will affect the debate about how to make the Net more secure?

For the last six months I've been reporting on the claims made by the commercial providers on the Internet that they can provide real security. I think the Shimomura-Mitnick story illustrates really well that we have the illusion of security now, but we don't have real security. If Tsutomu and I have anything to say, it's that the country needs to think about privacy and security issues as we step forward into whatever kind of world is emerging here.

I've gotten my share of flames on the Net recently for some of my security articles. What I've found is, as you criticize existing security technology, there's a bell-shaped curve of people who respond to you. The people who know nothing think that you're really insightful. The people who know a little bit think that you're full of shit and that you're criticizing something that is quite solid, thank you -- they want to know why you're tearing down these commercial possibilities. Yet the people who know a lot know that you're precisely right.

The banking community spent 200 years developing systems for safely handling money. We have spent half a decade on how to safely handle information that represents money. We're not there yet.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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