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

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DT: Part of the reason you wrote Ghost in the Wires was to address some of the fabrications about yourself.

ghost-in-the-wiresKM: Oh yeah, there were three books written about me, there was a motion picture called Take Down which I ended up settling a lawsuit out of court over, and they agreed to script changes and it never was theatrically released in the United States. I had a New York Times reporter who wrote a story that I hacked into NORAD in 1983 and nearly started WWIII or something ridiculous like this — stated it as fact, which was a completely unsourced allegation.

There’s a lot of stuff out there in the public eye that was just simply not true, and a lot of stuff that people really didn’t know. And I thought it was important to get my book to really tell my story and basically set the record straight. I also thought my story was like Catch Me if You Can, I had a two-decade-long cat and mouse game with the FBI. And I wasn’t out to make money. In fact, when I was on the run I worked 9-to-5 jobs to support myself and was hacking at night. I had the skills that if I wanted to, I could have stolen credit card details and bank account information, but my moral compass wouldn’t let me do that. And my primary reason for hacking was really the challenge: Like climbing Mt. Everest. But the primary reason was my pursuit of knowledge. As a kid interested in magic and HAM radio, I loved taking things apart and finding out how they worked. In my day there were no avenues to learned hacking ethically, it was a different world.

Even when I was in high school, I felt encouraged to hack. One of my first assignments was to write a program to find the first 100 Gnocchi numbers. Instead I wrote a program that could capture peoples’ passwords. And I worked so hard on this because I thought it was cool and fun, so I didn’t have time to do the actual assignment and turned this one in instead – and I got an A and a lot of “Atta boys.” I started in a different world.

DT: And you were even landed in solitary confinement while you were in prison because of things people thought you were able to do.

KM: Oh yeah, yeah. Years ago back in the mid 80s I hacked into a company called Digital Equipment Corporation, and what I was interested in was my long-term goal of becoming the best hacker possible. I had no goal except to get into the system. What I did was that I made a regrettable decision, and decided to go after the source code, which is like the secret recipe to Orange Julius for the VMS operating system, a very popular operating system back in the day.

So I basically took a copy of the source code and a friend of mine informed on me. When I ended up in court after the FBI arrested me, a federal prosecutor had told a judge that not only do we have to detain Mr. Mitnick as a national security threat, we have to make sure he can’t get near a telephone, because he could simply pick up a payphone, connect to a modem at NORAD, whistle the launch code and possibly start a nuclear war. And as the prosecutor said this, I started laughing because I’d never heard of something so ridiculous in my life. But the judge, unbelievably, bought it hook line and sinker, and I ended up being held in a federal detention center in solitary confinement for nearly a year. You don’t get to associate with anybody, you’re locked into a small room probably the size of your bathroom and you’re just sitting in there in a concrete coffin. It was kind of like psychological torture, and I think the maximum time a person is supposed to be in solitary confinement is something like 19 days, and they held me there for a year. And it was based on a ridiculous notion that I could whistle the launch codes.

DT: And how long after that were you not allowed to use basic electronics, or at least those that could enable communication?

KM: Well what happened is I ended up getting into trouble a couple times after I was released. A couple years later, the FBI sent an informant who was a real and criminally oriented hacker – meaning someone who steals credit card information to steal money – to set me up. And I realized quickly what the informant was doing so I began doing counter-intelligence against the FBI and started hacking again. This story is really focused on in the book: how I was breaking the FBI’s operation against me and found out the agents who were working against me and their cell phone numbers. I took their numbers and programmed them into a device I had as an early warning system. If they came close to my physical location I would know about it. Eventually after this case was over in 1999, I had very stringent conditions. I couldn’t touch anything with a transistor in it without the permission of the government. They treated me like I was a MacGyver, give Kevin Mitnick a nine-volt battery and duct tape and he’s a danger to society.

I couldn’t use a fax machine, a cell phone, a computer, anything that had anything to do with communications. And then eventually after two years they relaxed those conditions because I was commission to write a book called The Art of Deception, and they secretly gave me permission to use a laptop as long as I didn’t tell the media and didn’t connect to the Internet.

DT: I’d assume this wasn’t just incredibly inconvenient but also personally difficult.

kevin_wantedKM: Yeah because imagine… I was arrested in 1995 and released in 2000. And in those five years the Internet went through a dramatic change, so in this time it was like I was Rip Van Wrinkle. I went to sleep and woke up and the world has changed. So it was kind of difficult to be forbidden to touch technology. And the government, I believe, just wanted to make it extremely hard on me, or they actually believed I was a national security threat. I really don’t know which one it is, but I got through it. Today I’m able to take all this background and my hacking career and now I get paid for doing it. Companies hire me from all around the world to break into their systems, to find their vulnerabilities so they can fix them before the real bad guys get in. I travel the world speaking about computer security and raise awareness about it, so I’m extremely lucky to be doing this today.

I think that people know about my case, and that I did break the law, but that I wasn’t out to do it for money or to harm anybody. I just had the skills. I had nothing to lose, I was on the run from the FBI, I could have taken money, but it was against my moral compass. I regret the actions that harmed others, but I don’t really regret the hacking because to me that was like a video game.

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