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Hacker Hopes Honest Venture Clicks

January 04, 2003|Jenifer Ragland | Times Staff Writer

As a young man, Kevin Mitnick made a name for himself by deceiving people.

Now, at 39, the nation's most notorious computer hacker is taking on a very different challenge: convincing the world that he can be trusted.

On Jan. 20, Mitnick will gain unsupervised access to computers and the Internet for the first time in eight years after serving a five-year prison sentence and three years of strict probation.

But instead of using his freedom to break into companies' computer systems and swipe their data, Mitnick is poised to launch a career as a security expert -- helping to prevent the same computer attacks he once perpetrated.

"I have a knack for circumventing security," said Mitnick, sipping iced tea at a deli in Thousand Oaks, where he lives. "I figured I could make a contribution to the world by using that expertise to help."

He has started his own computer security company, signed on as a consultant for a Michigan-based technology firm and will interview for a job at a Silicon Valley corporation on the day his probation expires.

He won't reveal the name of the corporation, but said people will get a kick out of it when they find out.

"I have some background with them," he said with a smirk.

During the golden age of hacking in the late 1980s and early '90s, Mitnick, a native of the San Fernando Valley, was a young computer whiz who specialized in "social engineering" -- essentially tricking people into giving him information he shouldn't have.

Sometimes just by making a few phone calls and pretending to be someone he wasn't, Mitnick illegally copied secret software programs from multimillion-dollar telecommunications companies. He would use the software to aid future hacks.

"For Kevin it had never been about money," said Alex Kasper, a longtime friend and Mitnick's current business partner. "It was always about the prank."

Mitnick drew worldwide attention in 1995 when he was busted by a team of FBI agents in a Raleigh, N.C., apartment. The arrest followed a two-year manhunt during which Mitnick worked normal jobs under aliases, and hacked at night.

Authorities estimated he caused $5 million in losses to companies that included Motorola, Novell, Nokia and Sun Microsystems.

His widely publicized case turned him into something of a folk hero in technology sectors. Web sites were dedicated to his cause, "Free Kevin" T-shirts and bumper stickers were peddled at computer conventions and a laundry list of high-profile hacking jobs was attributed to him.

But since he was released from prison three years ago, Mitnick has worked hard to counter his image as a relentless troublemaker.

His book, "The Art of Deception," published in October, lays out the details behind how social engineers can trick computer network administrators into giving away secure information.

His company, Defensive Thinking, is in talks with actor Kevin Spacey about producing a series of training videos that would show -- in the style of a Hollywood movie -- how social engineering and information theft really work.

Just last month, Mitnick won a yearlong fight to regain his license to operate ham radios, a hobby he had since he was 13. In his ruling, the judge wrote that evidence suggests Mitnick "has focused on becoming an honest, productive citizen."

Since then Mitnick's cell phone -- programmed to play the theme from "Mission Impossible" -- has been ringing off the hook with calls from news reporters.

Mitnick has taken that opportunity to speak out, denying many of the stunts he was publicly accused of, including breaking into the North American Aerospace Defense Command's computer system.

His girlfriend, Darci Wood, has taken up that case on her Web site, labmistress.com, where she is starting a series of articles debunking Mitnick myths.

"Things have been written several times that just aren't true," said Wood, 33. "I'd like to set the record straight."

Professing to be a changed man, Mitnick said he truly regrets his criminal past.

But his behavior was never motivated by desire to do damage, he said -- just the intellectual thrill of getting into places he wasn't supposed to.

"Back then I didn't have any goals. I was bored and living day by day," he said. "The truth is, I learned my lesson."

Part of what taught him that lesson, he said, was watching his father die shortly after he got out of prison.

Realizing that he could have spent those five years with his dad caused him to do a lot of growing up.

"Now my goals are to live a law-abiding and productive lifestyle, to have a family and live the American dream just like everyone else," he said. "Hacking isn't a part of that."

Only time will tell, said Christopher Painter, deputy chief of the U.S. Justice Department's computer crimes division and the former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Mitnick.

"My sincere hope has always been that he will not be engaged in this kind of conduct," Painter said. "It's going to be up to him."

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