Hacker and Grifter Duel on the Net

By John Markoff

Copyright © 1995 The New York Times Company

San Francisco, February 19, 1995

My first inkling that Kevin Mitnick might be reading my electronic mail came more than a year ago. I found a document posted on a public electronic bulletin board containing a personal message that could only have been obtained by someone reading my mail. At the time, I suspected it might be Mr. Mitnick, a convicted computer felon who was being sought by the F.B.I. for violation of probation, but I simply shrugged and stopped using that e-mail account for anything important. I'd been around the Internet long enough to believe that true computer security is a fleeting illusion. In cyberspace, many people have become inured to the dangers of living in world of swashbuckling electronic pirates.

But the exploits of rogue technophiles that once made people fatalistic about privacy have also brought about a kind of backlash. If some citizens of cyberspace are blase about the likelihood of electronic intrusion, a growing number of others react to the filching of computer files with the feelings of outrage and violation normally provoked by a burglar's rifling their home. Whatonce seemed like a misguided spirit of adventure seems more and more like garden-variety vandalism.

Last month, when I learned that my accounts were again among those vandalized, I was less tolerant than I had been a year ago. I was not alone. The electronic intruder had also rifled the files from the home computer of Tsutomu Shimomura, a researcher at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, and left taunting messages. Mr. Shimomura, who has a deeply felt sense of right and wrong, abandoned a cross-country skiing vacation to spend the next two weeks on little sleep, tracking down the person who, he believed, had done it. Mr. Shimomura and a team of three other computer experts came to believe that their suspect was Mr. Mitnick, who was being hunted by the F.B.I. for various crimes, including the theft of some 20,000 credit card numbers from computer systems around the country. They let me know he was probably responsible for a second intrusion into my e-mail account. Mr. Shimomura begancooperating with the F.B.I. to track him down. Using sophisticated surveillance software in Sausalito and San Jose, California, he watched his suspect type out messages that seemed to reflect Mr. Mitnick's thoughts, worries and complaints.

I had to agree that Mr. Mitnick seemed to be the typist. One day this month, I watched Mr. Shimomura's computer screen as the suspect wrote a message to an acquaintance complaining that I had put his picture on the front page of The New York Times. There were only two people who could have written this, and of the two, Mr. Mitnick was the only plausible suspect. So I too became enmeshed in the digital manhunt for the nation's most wanted computer outlaw.

The technical sophistication of the pursued and his pursuer, Mr. Shimomura, was remarkable. But underneath the technological paraphernalia -- the tracking software and the radio homing devices carried by the pursuer, the baffling telephone switching manipulations used by the pursued to cover his tracks -- there was the interplay of two opposing personalities, who had little in common beside their considerable skills.

Their meeting was a collision of two dramatically different minds that happento share a fascination for cyberspace. One is an intense scientist who is a master at manipulating computers, the other is a chameleon-like grifter who is amaster at manipulating human beings.

Mr. Mitnick seemed to believe he was an equal of the man who finally caughthim. At his pre-trial hearing in Federal District Court in Raleigh, N.C. last week where he faced charges of computer fraud and illegal use of a telephone access device, he greeted Mr. Shimomura saying, "Hi, Tsutomu. I respect your skills."

The feeling wasn't mutual. In Mr. Shimomura's eyes, Mr. Mitnick's historyof break-ins was a simple violation of the tight-knit community of computer users who have built and maintained the Internet. "This kind of behavior is unacceptable," Mr. Shimomura said. And so, he decided to put a stop to it.

It didn't take long. Using different tools, including his own homebrew software program, which permits a video-like reconstruction of individual users'computer sessions, and cellular telephone scanning equipment, he had narrowed down the location of the suspect.

Early Monday morning, two weeks after he began his hunt, Mr. Shimomura was pointing to a cluster of apartment buildings in Raleigh, N.C. and telling F.B.I.agents, whom he had been in regular contact with, that they would find their target inside. Two days later, the F.B.I. knocked on an apartment door and arrested Mr. Mitnick.

Listen Fast

Mr. Shimomura's technical skills are obvious. He himself is almost impossible to classify. Although he studied under the physicist Richard Feynman at the California Institute of Technology, he has no college degree. What he does have is an uncanny ability to solve complex technical problems in the manner of Star Trek's Vulcan Mr. Spock. After meeting Mr. Shimomura for the first time in Sausalito, Calif., two weeks ago an F.B.I. agent turned to Assistant United States Attorney Kent Walker and shook his head saying, "He talks at 64,000 bits-per-second but I can only listen at 300 bits-per-second."

Mr. Shimomura also has what Neal Stephenson, the author of the novel "Snowcrash," calls "kneejerk iconoclasticism," a willingness to question everything. He seems to embody the very essence of the original hacker ethic -- writing programs to create something elegant, not for gain -- as described bySteven Levy, the author of "Hackers: Heros of the Computer Revolution." "Tsutomu's very much into the culture of sharing," Mr. Levy said.

Mr. Mitnick was not. I wrote my first article about Mr. Mitnick in the early 1980's after he was arrested in Southern California for breaking into a Pacific Bell central office and stealing the telephone company's technical manuals. At the time he was a teenager.

Since then Mr. Mitnick has been arrested three more times. In 1987, he was convicted of unauthorized access to a computer for electronically breaking into the computers at the Santa Cruz Operation. He was sentenced to probation. In 1988, he was charged with stealing software electronically from the Digital Equipment Corporation. He was convicted a year later and sentenced to a year in prison and six months of counseling for what his attorney termed his addiction to computers. The third arrest came last week. He is in Wade County jail in western North Carolina, awaiting trial.

Mr. Mitnick is the archetype of the cyberpunk antihero. He feels as if he'sliving in a post-Orwellian world, where outlaw street culture merges with high technology. Read William Gibson's novel "Neuromancer" or watch Ridley Scott's movie Bladerunner, and you will understand a world populated by superfast computers and shady characters who blend high-tech skills with an outlaw sensibility.

If anything, Mr. Mitnick's real "darkside" brilliance comes not from his computer skills, but from his insight into people. He understands how organizations keep information and he knows how to trick people into giving the information to him.

Mr. Mitnick is not a hacker in the original sense of the word. Mr. Shimomura is. And when their worlds collided, it was obvious which one of them had to win.