Technology: Kevin Mitnick's Obsession

by Joshua Quittner

Copyright 1995 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

February 27, 1994

Kevin Mitnick's parents divorced when he was three, giving him a head start on one trait so many hackers share: an absent father. By the time he was 16, living in Los Angeles with his mom, a waitress, he was obsessed with computer networks. His first hack was breaking into his high school's administrative system. Typically, he didn't alter grades, though he could have. He was just looking.

Mitnick has been looking ever since - yet another Lost Boy in cyberspace, hoping, perhaps, to be found. By the time he was captured last week in an apartment house in North Carolina, where authorities claim he had as much as $1 million worth of stolen data stashed away, he was the world's most wanted hacker.

Mitnick's run-ins with the law began as a teenager, when he was caught stealing telephone-company technical manuals from Pacific Bell's computer center in Los Angeles. The judge sentenced him to probation, which Mitnick quickly violated by hacking the computers at a local university. That earned him six months in jail. By the time he got out, Mitnick knew as much about the biggest computer network in the world (the telephone system) as anyone at Bell Labs. He could create unbillable numbers, call-forward calls, disconnect service and tap lines at will. On hacker bulletin boards, he was known as the Condor. But to the phone company he was James Bond - with an unlisted phone number that ended in 007.

Mitnick has a fine sense of humor. An accomplished ham radio operator, he figured out how to override the microphone used by clerks at fast-food drive-up windows. Mitnick would sit in his car and listen as a customer shouted his order. Then, posing as the food server, Mitnick would take control of the speaker system and curse the unwitting diner for eating such slop.

He also had a cruel streak, and played dirty tricks on his friends and disciples. When the FBI went after him in 1988 for stealing a proprietary computer code from the Digital Equipment Corp., it was his friend Lenny DiCicco who turned him in. "Why did you do this to me?" Mitnick asked when the agents nabbed him in a parking garage. "Because you're a menace to society," DiCicco said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Mitnick served a year in prison, and another at a residential treatment program where he took a 12-step program designed to rid him of "computer addiction." As a condition of his release from jail in 1990, he was ordered not to touch a computer or a modem. By June 1992 he was working for a private eye, doing surveillance and research, and had dropped 100 lbs. But his brother, reportedly, had just died of a heroin overdose. Mitnick's cursor finger was getting itchy again. When the FBI arrived with a search warrant one day to ask whether Mitnick might know, among other things, who was eavesdropping on Pac Bell security officials' voice mail, Mitnick hit the road.

During his three years on the run, Mitnick kept in touch with his pals, usually through Internet Relay Chat, an electronic meeting place where Internet users type real-time messages at each other. By breaking into the computer of Tsutomu Shimomura, one of the world's most tenacious computer-security experts, maybe Mitnick was unconsciously asking to get caught. When Shimomura led the fbi to the hacker's North Carolina lair last week, Mitnick was on the computer, looking for something.