Just learned last night that Kevin Mitnick passed away on Sunday – I think it’s fitting to say RIP and write an epitaph for a hacker. I never knew the guy but it’s safe to say that his life story did a lot to inspire me as a writer. Was Mitnick a villain, a cyberpunk warrior, or a counter-culture activist? Let’s take a moment to pause and reflect.
First, some basic facts: As it says in his obit, ‘Kevin David Mitnick, 59, died peacefully on Sunday, July 16, 2023, after valiantly battling pancreatic cancer for more than a year. Kevin is survived by his beloved wife, Kimberley Mitnick, who remained by his side throughout their 14-month ordeal. Kimberley is pregnant with their first child. Kevin was ecstatic about this new chapter in his and Kimberley’s life together, which has now been sadly cut short.’
Mitnick was a lifetime hacker – makes sense for us to consider him since we’ve spent so much time documenting the History of Hacking. His life story was equally romanticized and demonized by media outlets – a cyberpunk hero or a villainous vandal, depending on who you talked to.
Law enforcement, major corporations seemed to hate and fear Kevin Mitnick. When he was released in prison, his supervised release forbade him to use any communications technology other than a landline telephone. How did he get started, and what drove Kevin Mitnick to become what Katie Hafner and John Markoff would later call ‘the Dark-Side Hacker?’
“At the end of the day, my goal was to be the best hacker.” – Kevin Mitnick
For Kevin Mitnick, the road to infamy was non-linear. In the 80s, he was a member of a small group of ‘phone phreakers.’ Phone phreaking, at the time, was an interesting cross between geekery, urban exploration, and crime. ‘Yes, it was wrong to break into major telephone companies, but was what were they actually doing actually wrong?’ – so the logic went.
Kevin’s curiosity, expertise, and daring led him to greater acts of cyber-shenanigans. The Internet, in its infancy, was largely open for those who knew how to get around telnet and home-brew BBS systems. Hackers began collecting what they learned on places like Pirate’s Cove in Boston and 8BBS. At the same time, Mitnick and other hackers began exploring virtually DEC and physically breaking into Pacific Bell’s COSMOS center in Los Angeles.
Mitnick and the public fascination with hacking seemed to feed on each other. Mitnick’s allegedly hacked into the North American Defense Command (NORAD), which he has always denied conducting, served as the inspiration for the 1983 film, WarGames. He denied ever actually doing this: “If I hacked into NORAD or wiretapped the FBI, I certainly would have been charged with it. I got into trouble largely because of my actions. However, because of the media reporting, I was treated as ‘Osama bin Mitnick.'”
A quick browse through Wikipedia fills in the gaps of the story: “In 1988, Mitnick was convicted for breaking into DEC’s network and stealing software and sentenced to 12 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release. Near the end of his supervised release, Mitnick hacked into Pacific Bell voicemail computers. After a warrant was issued for his arrest, Mitnick fled, becoming a fugitive for two-and-a-half years.
“Mitnick was released on January 21, 2000. During his supervised release, which ended on January 21, 2003, he was initially forbidden to use any communications technology other than a landline telephone. The case against Mitnick tested the new laws that had been enacted for dealing with computer crime, and it raised public awareness of security involving networked computers. The controversy remains, however, and the Mitnick story is often cited today as an example of the influence that newspapers and other media outlets can have on law enforcement personnel.
Kevin Mitnick moved to Las Vegas and became a public speaker, author, and security consultant after his release from prison. He died there last Sunday at the age of 59. I keep coming back to the same question: What do we learn from the life and times of Kevin Mitnick?
While many people focus on the technology and danger of hacking, I feel like there’s a ‘missing stair’ in the motivation of people like Kevin Mitnick. Ignore the tactics, study the motivation. Why do they do what they do?
I’ll talk more about this later but I think the answer in a nutshell is: social mobility. Kevin, as a poor kid, relied on the bus system in Los Angeles to get around. Then he discovered with a few simple tweaks, the system could be made to serve him. He had free rides wherever he went. Later, with phone phreaking, he had free phone calls!
It’s hard to say ‘no’ to that kind of social mobility, especially when you’re a latchkey kid to a single parent within a system that has largely failed you. Was Mitnick a villain, a cyberpunk warrior, or a counter-culture activist? The answer to this question is: none of the above.
I would invite the reader to do one thing that forty years worth of law enforcement and media hype never seemed to do: Look at Kevin Mitnick as a person.
Good night, weirdo.