Computer an ‘Umbilical Cord to His Soul’ : ‘Dark Side’ Hacker Seen as ‘Electronic Terrorist’
When computer hacker Kevin Mitnick arrived at a Calabasas parking garage for a meeting with his friend Lenny DiCicco four weeks ago, DiCicco reached up and casually scratched his head, a prearranged signal to federal agents hiding nearby.
Quickly, with the sound of screeching tires and shouted commands, a half dozen men closed in and handcuffed Mitnick. “Len, why did you do this to me?” Mitnick asked as he was being led away, DiCicco recalled later.
“Because you’re a menace to society,” DiCicco replied.
Law enforcement authorities couldn’t agree more. Mitnick, 25, an overweight, bespectacled San Fernando Valley computer junkie known as a “dark side” hacker for his willingness to use the computer as a weapon, has been accused of causing $4 million in damage to computer giant Digital Equipment Corp. in Massachusetts.
Described by one investigator as a sophisticated criminal whose computer was an “umbilical cord . . . to his soul,” he also is charged by a federal grand jury with illegally copying Digital software valued at $1 million.
But those are just the latest in a decade-long series of accusations against Mitnick, whose high school computer hobby turned into a lasting obsession. He roved Los Angeles, allegedly using computers at schools and businesses to break into Defense Department computer systems, sabotage business computers and electronically harass anyone--including a probation officer and FBI agents--who got in his way. He also learned how to disrupt telephone company operations and disconnected the phones of Hollywood celebrities such as Kristy McNichol, authorities said.
So determined was Mitnick, according to friends, that when he suspected his home phone was being monitored, he carried his hand-held keyboard to a pay phone in front of a 7-Eleven store, where he hooked it up and continued to break into computers around the country.
“He’s an electronic terrorist,” said DiCicco. “He can ruin someone’s life just using his fingers.”
Over the last month, three federal court judges have refused at separate hearings to set bail for Mitnick, contending there would be no way to protect society from him if he were freed from his cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles, where he is awaiting a Feb. 21 trial date.
Not Just a Prankster
Although there is a subculture of “whiz kids” around the country who break into computers for fun, and they occasionally are caught by local authorities, they traditionally wind up with no more than a slap on the wrist or a short term in jail or juvenile detention facilities, according to Jay BloomBecker of the National Center for Computer Data, an information firm in Los Angeles.
But Mitnick is being treated as anything but a prankster. Prosecutors say he is the first person to be charged under a tough federal interstate computer crime law. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of three counts.
Mitnick’s lack of conscience, authorities say, makes him even more dangerous than hackers such as Robert Morris Jr., the Cornell graduate student who is suspected of infecting computer systems around the country with a “virus” that interfered with their operations. Morris has not yet been charged with any crimes.
Mitnick’s motive for a decade of hacking?
Not money, apparently. An unemployed computer programmer, he drove a used car and was living with his wife in his mother’s modest Panorama City apartment at the time of his arrest.
“He’s gotten nothing out of it except jail,” said DiCicco.
Mitnick’s family and attorney, however, accuse federal prosecutors of blowing the case out of proportion, either out of fear or misunderstanding of the technology. Mitnick’s wife, Bonnie, a clerk who met her future husband when he sent a message to her computer asking for a date, said prosecutors are portraying her husband as a technological magician who “could turn dogs into chickens.”
His mother, Shelly Jaffee, a Panorama City waitress, said her son never even owned a computer and is not smart enough to pull off such sophisticated crimes. She acknowledged that he once won a $300 prize at a fair for cracking a display computer’s security code, but she attributed that more to luck than anything else.
By all accounts, Mitnick was a bright but undistinguished boy in school. He enjoyed sports and fiddled around with the Rubik’s Cube, a puzzle craze. He wasn’t particularly good with it, said Jaffee, who was divorced when Kevin was 3. “He was just a normal, typical kid. He was not a whiz kid,” she said.
In fact, Mitnick disliked school, where he was unpopular, friends said. Aloof and a loner, his appearance didn’t help. He acquired the much-satirized look of the computer fanatic: shirt tail hanging out, horn-rimmed glasses and pens in his breast pocket.
“There was always something slightly out of place,” said one educator who knew Mitnick as a student in a computer class.
An Interest in School
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.”
One thing he did repeatedly, according to authorities, was disconnect phone service to entertainers he admired, especially McNichol, then a star of the television show “Family.” Over the years, prosecutors say, those who crossed Mitnick have had problems. Mary Ridgeway, Mitnick’s probation officer, said her phone was disconnected as she was about to revoke his probation about five years ago because he had broken into police computers.
Ridgeway said Mitnick once bragged to her that he had tampered with the credit records of FBI agents who investigated him.
“He has a very vindictive streak,” she said. “A whole bunch of people were harassed. They call me all the time.”
Even friends were not safe. Rhoades said he once picked up his phone at home and heard a recorded message telling him to “please deposit 25 cents.” DiCicco said he once found that all his company’s calls were being forwarded to his home phone--a prank he was sure Mitnick was behind.
Mitnick met his wife two years ago in a class at Computer Learning Center in Los Angeles, where he was helping to write a security program to protect the school’s computer system against hackers. A message suddenly appeared on her computer screen asking for a date. Auburn-haired and petite, she looked over at him, then typed, “Sure.”
Chivalrous, he walked her to class and even carried her books.
A Different Picture
Mitnick’s attorney, Alan Rubin, said everything he can learn about his client shows him to be a decent, hard-working man. “We have a picture of him that is so out of line with what the government is saying,” he said, shaking his head.
In 1987, Mitnick broke into the systems of computer firms in Santa Cruz, authorities said. He was so confident, he continued to enter The Santa Cruz Operation computers after officials there detected him and electronically sent him his own password, “hacker,” so they could keep close watch on what he was doing.
The company agreed not to sue him if he would tell them how he had broken through the security, and Computer Services Manager Steph Marr said he flew down to Los Angeles to meet Mitnick. Marr said he complimented Mitnick’s abilities with a respectful greeting.
“Well met, well played,” Marr said. But Mitnick shrugged off the praise, the executive said.
“He sort of came across as I was not fully qualified to ask him these things.”
Associates said Mitnick believed he was too clever to be caught. He had penetrated the DEC network in Massachusetts so effectively, DiCicco said, that he could read the personal electronic mail of security people working on the case of the mysterious hacker and discover just how close they were getting to him.
But caught he was, again and again--often by authorities tracing the long distance calls needed for an outsider to tie in to a computer. After each brush with authorities, however, the lure to return to hacking was too great to resist, according to his friends. His mastery of the computer, after all, was his “source of self esteem,” said Rhoades.
Friends say Mitnick thought of using his unusual abilities to make a living. He and DiCicco were planning to start a business that would advise companies how to keep out hackers.
But strains developed in their relationship, according to DiCicco, when he tired of the “dark side” hacking. He said he tried to get away from Mitnick, but his friend would search him out. “He would call and say, ‘Ha, ha, I found you.’ You can’t hide from this person.”
Visits to the Office
Mitnick began visiting DiCicco at night at Voluntary Plan Administrators (VPA), a Calabasas firm where DiCicco worked, to use the company’s computers. DiCicco said that when he grew sick of Mitnick’s demands and finally turned him down, Mitnick called his boss, impersonated an IRS agent and said DiCicco was in trouble with the government.
It was one malicious prank too many. Confronted by his boss, DiCicco “spilled the beans,” he said.
The FBI was called in and watched Mitnick’s every move the day before his arrest, once recording him after he signed on the computer system at VPA. Mitnick dialed into Digital and into a computer system in Leeds, England, according to DiCicco and law enforcement officials.
DiCicco said Mitnick talked British professors into giving him passwords and was already halfway into the system when he quit after six hours of hacking.
He had no second thoughts about turning in his former mentor. “He always thought he had his thumb on me,” DiCicco said.
Friends said Mitnick did it all simply for the challenge, what one computer expert called finding “a worthy opponent.”
The lack of a profit motive in Mitnick’s hacking makes the move to hold him without bail repugnant to some defense attorneys. “It’s crazy,” said Leslie Abramson, president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice in Los Angeles. “It speaks of the vast power of prosecutors.”
But prosecutors say Mitnick is a new kind of criminal, one who can do as much harm with a computer terminal as a bank robber with a gun. They say there is evidence he broke into the super-secret National Security Agency computers and that other federal charges could be filed soon.
In addition, county authorities are reviewing evidence against both Mitnick and DiCicco of a possible theft of computer software at Pierce College.
“There is a tendency to look on these things as pranks,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen Plafker.
“Mitnick has got enough of a history now that we can look on him as being really dangerous.”
Time staff writer Kim Murphy contributed to this story.