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Q&A: The notorious Kevin Mitnick on hacking, ethics, and the future of tech

Kevin-Mitnick

Today, Kevin Mitnick is a security expert who infiltrates his clients’ companies to expose their weaknesses. He’s also the author of several books, including Ghost in the Wires. But he’s most known as the hacker who eluded the FBI for years, and was eventually imprisoned for his ways. We had a chance to talk to him about his time in solitary confinement, hacking McDonald’s, and what he thinks about Anonymous.

Digital Trends: When did you first become interested in hacking?

Kevin Mitnick: Actually what started me in hacking was this hobby I had call phone phreaking. When I was a junior in high school I was fascinated with magic, and I met this other student who was able to do magic with a telephone. He could do all these tricks: I could call in on a number he told me and he’d call on another, and we’d be joined together, and this is called a loop-around. It was a phone company test circuit. He showed me he had this secret number at the phone company, he could dial a number, and it’d give a weird tone, and then put in a five digit code and he could call anywhere for free.

He had secret numbers in the phone company where he could call and he didn’t have to identify himself, what would happen is if he had a phone number, he could find the name and address of that number even if it was unpublished. He could break through call forwarding. He could do magic with the phone, and I became really fascinated with the phone company. And I was a prankster. I loved pranks. My foot in the door into hacking was pulling pranks on friends.

One of my first pranks was I would change my friends’ home phone to a pay phone. So whenever he or his parents’ tried to make a call it would say “please deposit a quarter.”

So my entry into hacking was my fascination with the phone company and wanting to pull pranks.

DT: Where did you get the technical knowledge to start pulling these things off?

KM: I was interested in technology myself, and he wouldn’t actually tell me how he did things. Sometimes I would overhear what he was doing, and I knew he was using social engineering, but he was like the magician who did the tricks but wouldn’t tell me how they were done, so I would have to work it out myself.

Prior to meeting this guy, I was already an amateur radio operator. I passed my HAM radio test when I was 13, and I was already into electronics and radio so I had that technical background.

This was back in the 70s, and I couldn’t get a C.B. license because you had to be 18 years old, and I was 11 or 12. So I met this bus driver when I was riding the bus one day, and this driver introduced me to HAM radio. He showed me how he could make phone calls using his handheld radio, which I thought was super cool because it was before cell phones and I thought “Wow this is so cool, I have to learn about it.” I picked up some books, took some courses, and at 13 passed the exam.

Then I learned about phones. After that, another student in high school introduced me to the computer instructor to take a computer class. At first the instructor wouldn’t let me in because I didn’t meet the prerequisites, and then I showed him all the tricks I could do with the telephone, and he was thoroughly impressed and allowed me into the class.

DT: Do you have a favorite hack, or one that you were particularly proud of?

KM: The hack I’m most attached to was hacking McDonald’s. What I worked out — you remember I had my HAM radio license — I could take over the drive-up windows. I would sit across the street and take them over. You can imagine at 16, 17 years old, what fun you could have. So the person in McDonald’s could hear everything going on, but they couldn’t overpower me, I would overpower them.

Customers would drive up and I would take their order and say “Okay, you’re the 50th customer today, your order is free please drive forward.” Or cops would come up and sometimes I’d say “I’m sorry sir we don’t have any donuts for you today, and for police officers we only serve Dunkin Donuts.” Either that or I’d go, “Hide the cocaine! Hide the cocaine!”

It got to the point where the manager would come out into the parking lot, look at the lot, look in the cars, and of course no one’s around. So he’d go up to the drive-up speaker and actually look inside like there was a man hidden inside, and then I’d go “What the hell are you looking at!”

DT: Will you talk a little about the difference between social engineering your way into a network and actually hacking into one?

KM: The truth of the matter is most hacks are hybrid. You could get into a network through network exploitation – you know, finding a pure technical way. You could do it through manipulating people who have access to computers, to reveal information or to do an “action item” like open a PDF file. Or you can gain physical access to where their computers or servers are and do it this way. But it’s not really one or the other, it’s really based on the target and the situation, and that’s where the hacker decides which skill to use, which avenue they’re going to use to breach the system.

Now today, social engineering is a substantial threat because RSA [Security] and Google were hacked, and these were through a technique called spear phishing. With the RSA attacks, which were substantial because the attackers stole the token seeds which defense contractors used for authentication, the hackers booby-trapped an Excel document with a Flash object. They found a target within RSA that would have access to information they wanted, and sent this booby-trapped document to the victim, and when they opened the Excel document (which was probably sent from what looked like a legitimate source, a customer, business partner) it invisibly exploited a vulnerability within Adobe Flash and the hacker then had access to this employee’s workstation and RSA’s internal network.

Spear phishing uses two components: Social networking to get the person to open up the Excel doc, and the second part is the technical exploitation of a bug or security flaw in Adobe that gave the attacker full control of the computer. And that’s how it works in the real world. You don’t just call somebody up on the phone and ask for a password; attacks are usually hybrid and combine technical and social engineering.

In Ghost in the Wires, I describe how I used both techniques.