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Computer an 'Umbilical Cord to His Soul' : 'Dark Side' Hacker Seen as 'Electronic Terrorist'

January 08, 1989|JOHN JOHNSON | Times Staff Writer

His interest in computers blossomed at Monroe High School in Sepulveda, where he took a programming course taught by John Christ in 1979. But Mitnick was not interested in writing simple programs--he wanted to learn how to manipulate the fundamental codes that made the computer work, Christ said.

Soon, he was using the classroom computers, furnished by Digital Equipment Corp., the world's largest maker of networked computers with $11 billion in annual sales, to gain access to files in the Los Angeles Unified School District's main computers in downtown Los Angeles, Christ said. The two systems were linked and Mitnick was able to discover codes that, when typed into the classroom system, would allow entry into the main computers.

He didn't try to alter grades, but caused enough trouble that administrators asked Christ to watch him closely. When Mitnick was caught breaking in again, Christ said, he showed no remorse.

"He has no conscience as far as I can tell," the instructor said.

DiCicco said Mitnick was already a schoolyard legend for misusing the computer terminal when they met. DiCicco, who became a disciple, said watching Mitnick find ways into computer systems "was thrilling. I was learning a lot from him."

Better Than Football

He may not have been on the football team, but within the subculture of computer hackers, Mitnick was a colorful figure, using the name "Condor," for a Robert Redford movie character who outwits the government. The final digits of his unlisted home phone were "007," reportedly billed to the name "James Bond."

Mitnick had such a special feeling for the computer that when an investigator for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office accused him of harming a computer he entered, he got tears in his eyes. "The computer to him was more of an animate thing," said the investigator, Robert Ewen. "There was an umbilical cord from it to his soul. That's why when he got behind a computer he became a giant."

Although some teen-agers consider hacking glamorous, it actually can be a grinding process. A hacker may spend hours, even days, on a home terminal, connected by phone to another system the hacker wants to enter. The target system is usually protected by security designed to keep out unauthorized intruders, so the hacker often has to deduce--or discover by tedious trial and error--the secret passwords given to people authorized to use the system.

What made Mitnick "the best," said Steven Rhoades, a fellow hacker and friend, was his ability to talk people into giving him privileged information. He would call an official with a company he wanted to penetrate and say he was in the maintenance department and needed a computer password. He was so convincing, they gave him the necessary names or numbers, Rhoades said.

Rhoades said he and Mitnick broke into a North American Air Defense Command computer in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1979. The 1983 movie "Wargames" is based upon a similar incident, in which a young hacker nearly starts World War III when he sends a message to a defense computer that is mistaken for a Soviet missile attack.

'Just Looked Around'

But Rhoades said they did not interfere with any defense operations. "We just got in, looked around, and got out," he said.

At the time he was getting interested in computers, Mitnick also developed a fascination for the telephone system, becoming what is known as a "phone phreak." In 1981, when he was just 17, Mitnick and three others were arrested for stealing manuals while pretending to be on a guided tour of Pacific Bell's computer center in Los Angeles, which controlled service and repair operations and other functions for Southern California's phone system.

He was prosecuted as a juvenile and placed on probation. He violated it a short time later, however, by using USC computers, which were at that time left open for public use, to invade computers elsewhere, federal prosecutors said. He was sent to a youth detention facility for six months, records show.

Pacific Bell officials refuse to talk about Mitnick. But he eventually learned so much that he could create phone numbers, tap into telephone calls, and disconnect service without leaving a trace, according to DiCicco and Rhoades. He did this, according to DiCicco, by impersonating phone company officials, or by playing certain tones over the phone to the Pacific Bell computer, which then carried out pre-programmed orders.

Ewen said Mitnick "had the ability to do anything the telephone company could do. Our belief was, he could have taken the system down."

Phone Mischief

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