Most Wanted

In the mind of hacker Kevin Mitnick

Kevin David Mitnick personifies the hacker as sociopath.

His exploits--legend has it he penetrated the North American Air Defense Command as a teenager--are said to have inspired the movie War Games.

Even the most heavily guarded networks and highly touted security experts have been no match for Mitnick's unique double-barreled shotgun of technical savvy and old-fashioned con artistry.

Mitnick has toyed with long-distance switching networks, pirated the Internet and cellular telephone companies at will and jousted with those he considers foes.

In 1992, Mitnick became a federal fugitive and led the Federal Bureau of Investigation on a wild, international chase.

Mitnick's celebrated hacking spree and capture in February 1995 made front-page news around the world. Yet the crimes and motivations of the FBI's "most wanted hacker" remained shrouded in myth. Mitnick had never talked to a journalist.

But nine months before his capture, the 31-year-old Mitnick began to call Jonathan Littman, a freelance journalist in San Francisco who has written numerous articles about cyberpunks. What follows are selected excerpts from some of the dozens of conversations between Mitnick and Littman while the hacker was on the run.

BOOK EXCERPT From The Fugitive Game: Online With Kevin Mitnick by Jonathan Littman, to be published this month by Little Brown & Co., Boston. Copyright 1996, Little Brown.

Talking to Kevin Mitnick is like channel surfing. He skips from topic to topic, sometimes interrupting himself midsentence. But nearly everything he says is intriguing, especially when you consider he's wanted by the FBI. "Why do you think they've tried to make you this incredible ..."

"Bad guy? Monster?

"Because it's easier to do anything they want with you if they make sure the public has that view. Then no one gives a sh-t.

"On the other hand, I don't consider the acts I'm accused of being heinous. There's no money I've stolen. Nobody made a profit."

"Acts you're accused of?" I repeat.

"Things that I'm accused of that they mention in the papers [copying the source code for cellular phone service, wiretapping FBI agents and attempting to social engineer, or con, Department of Motor Vehicle officials], I'm not commenting one way or another. I'm just saying, if they were true or not, I don't think it's public enemy number one material."

Maybe Kevin Mitnick misses his lost childhood and wishes he could change, but he still loves to hack. He's just finished telling me how he wishes he'd never seen a computer. Now he's telling me why he can't resist temptation.

"People who use computers are very trusting, very easy to manipulate. I know the computer systems of the world are not as safe as they think," Mitnick proclaims proudly. "Information is not safe. Only military computers are secure."

Mitnick worships technology.

"I believe it's fascinating, the marvel of communications and technology. A little palmtop that can store masses of data or do intense calculations. The ability to walk down the street and talk to someone at the other end of the world.

"I have the ability to find anybody I want to find. I'm very good at what I want to do. I was teaching [private investigators]. They were amazed. High-tech PI firms aren't what they're cracked up to be. They go and pay somebody off at the DMV or at the IRS. They grease the palm. I do it with a laptop and a cell phone."

Mitnick's revved up, jumping from thought to thought. "It's been a unique learning experience. My philosophy, it's hard to explain. It's like a high-tech game, figuring out how to crack a computer. How to actually outwit opponents.

"It's a big game, but I could end up in the can. They're saying I'm John Dillinger, that I'm terrible, that it's shocking that I could get this awesome power. They can get away with whatever they want. It's like Saudi Arabian law." "Why do you think the government is taking it so seriously?" I ask.

"They're afraid because the technology is new. They [the FBI] are not up on it. They are used to old-fashioned, stick 'em up crime. This is something new, something they can be violated with. They're scared of the new technology. They've convinced the public they are in great danger."

"So do you think you're a criminal?"

"No, I don't like to think of myself as a criminal. But if the technology laws are like Singapore, where it's illegal to chew gum," Mitnick sighs, "I guess I'm a criminal.

"I'm the type who's a master safecracker. I'd read your will, your diary, put it back, not take the money, shut the safe and do it so you never knew I was there. I'd do it because it's neat, because it's a challenge. I love the game.

"I guess you could paint me as an alcoholic. Five years ago, that's all I looked forward to, even in my marriage. I put my hacking above my work, my time with my wife, anything. At the time I knew I had this drive to do it, but I didn't think about it."

"What was the attraction?"

"The high. To beat the System. It's scary not knowing why you do something, but I didn't want to do anything else. I'm trapped. There's no escape."

"Which are the most secure systems out there?" I ask the world's most-feared hacker. "Are any of them secure?" "If you're on the Internet, you're in trouble."

"OK. What about CompuServe?"

"No."

"America Online?"

"No."

"But they told me they're secure."

"Why don't you call the Well [a public access 'net site]?" Mitnick snips sarcastically. "You know the Well is secure. Use the Well. You don't like people reading your mail, do you?" Mitnick chuckles. "Why don't you just say, 'Hey, don't read my mail!"'

I ignore the taunt and ask more about Internet security. "It's funny because one of the larger Internet providers told me, 'No, only those smaller providers have problems. We're perfectly secure. And if you wanna be extra secure, we just won't list you in the directory!' "

"Maybe you should go with Netcom," Mitnick snickers.

It's an inside joke. Netcom is one of Mitnick's many personal cyberspace playgrounds.

"You don't feel this fear out there?" I ask. "What do you think could be done?"

"I don't know if it's real or not. I guess it's real because who am I to say how someone else feels? But I think fear is played upon a lot, too."

"I had to go on business like six months ago, flying to D.C.," Mitnick begins, his voice bubbling with excitement. "So I actually went on the White House tour."

"You're kidding?"

"No! Could you imagine, all these Secret Service agents?" Mitnick chuckles at the irony. One of the Secret Service's jobs is to catch hackers. "They're in uniforms. It's weird they're not in, like, suits."

"So Cyberman goes to the ..."

"The White House, dude."

"I wanted to get some pictures taken, but I decided that was a bad idea.

"They didn't have much security," Mitnick observes. "Little did they know I was there to get into WhiteHouse.gov," Mitnick chortles, referring to Clinton's Internet site address. '"Hello, I just wanna see the computer room, guys."'

"They're on the 'net, right?"

"WhiteHouse.gov. That's the one that's secure," Mitnick deadpans. "I'm just kidding. Any computer is insecure unless you're military."

Mitnick's finally talking about how he could hack his first million, that is, if he were just a cybercriminal and not a dedicated hacker.

"Theoretically, what could one make money with?"

"Information," Mitnick says weightily. "Insider trading." Ivan Boesky, listen up.

"Let's say I wanted to make lots of money. Like right now I can get out of this f---ing bind that I am in. All's you've got to do is become a real criminal. Infiltrating companies that do leveraged buyouts and stocks and mergers. Obtain this information, create a new identity and do stock trades. Something that's not going to be so high profile that the Securities and Exchange Commission steps in. Like 50K here and 50K there."

"A lot of money," I say.

"Become another Ivan Boesky. That's easy. I can do it tomorrow, but that's where I don't cross the line. But if somebody wanted to do that, the key would be infiltrating the companies that do the leveraged buyouts.

"The buyout companies," Mitnick repeats. "The attorneys that do the buyouts."

"Which is probably easier?"

"You know they're not secure," Mitnick says. "Like, for instance, I hate saying names."

"Well, I'll say a name, like Lehman Brothers or ..."

"Shearson Lehman. So you basically attack those companies, and I'm good enough, I can basically get in anywhere I choose. Like now, if I was a real desperado, that's what I'd be doing."

"Right," I say with a touch of disbelief in my voice.

Mitnick doesn't like my tone. "You know I'm not bullsh---ing you!" Mitnick snaps.

"Right. You just target somebody who has ..."

"The information," Mitnick intones.

"Information." It's one of the hacker's favorite words, right after "idiot."

"There's always got to be one center that's more secure than the other," Mitnick continues, sounding professional. "They are just about to do a leveraged [buyout], and the value of the company's going to double in the next week. So you buy 10K [of stock], and it's worth 20K."

"Right, and then you sell."

"As long as you don't buy $ 100,000," Mitnick advises. "Maybe [you] establish a credit profile under it, and then you take that cash. You launder it. You deposit it in your real account under your other identity and in different increments. So in other words, you wouldn't take five grand out of that bank and the same day deposit five grand in your other bank.

"They have certain trip levels that notify the IRS. With the new database the government's going to do on America, they're going to keep track of everyone's banking finances. So you take out $ 2,000 and a few days later, make another $2,000 deposit."

"Big Brother doesn't watch if it's under $ 2,000?"

"Twenty-five hundred is the trip level," Mitnick explains. "Ten thousand is the big trip level, but banks also notify at $2,500. They actually have a database which keeps track of all these transactions that's how they catch big drug traffickers."

"They do this on everybody?"

"What's the big deal? So it takes four times as long. It's basically free money," Mitnick says, suddenly wondering why he just told me this. "I'm telling you if I was a real thief, I wouldn't be toying around with cellular sh-t 'cuz there's no money in it!"

Mitnick continues. "What, so I'm going to modify a cellular phone and sell it to somebody so that person can go turn me in? If you're going to commit a crime, do it where there's no witnesses. And that's in this insider sh-t."

"What are the other theoretical methods that could be used?"

"Besides wiretapping?" the hacker says.

"Yeah."

"There's many different ways of wiretapping: social engineering, outside penetration. Computers can be broken into. If they're on the Internet, [they] might as well have a welcome mat."

Copyright © 1996 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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