SDSC Computer Security Experts Help FBI
Capture Computer Terrorist

Feb. 16, 1995

Yesterday, officials apprehended a computer criminal in North Carolina who allegedly broke into a computer at the San Diego Supercomputer Center in December and stole several software tools under development. Other systems across the country were also targeted by the intruder, whose activities may have been going on for some time. The break-in at SDSC was detected by security measures in place at the center, underscoring the importance of further development of network security technologies.

A spokesperson for SDSC told HPCwire that the individual's arrest is the result of a collaboration among Federal agencies and computer security specialists at SDSC, including Tsutomu Shimomura, a well-known security expert. Shimomura has been working with Federal agencies to capture the criminal since December 25, when Shimomura found that an intruder had broken into his computer over the network, stolen several security tools under development, and deleted files in an attempt to hide activities. Shimomura's computer expertise was essential to the investigation and the subsequent capture of the criminal. His contribution to the case was a key factor in capturing the alleged perpetrator. Such collaborations among specialists from various agencies will contribute significantly to the development of more advanced network security tools in the future.

Tools developed for network security, like those developed by SDSC researchers, may be similar to those developed by computer criminals -- but criminals are using them to disrupt communication and destroy or alter the work of a nation. Thanks to the talents of those who cooperated in solving this case, the criminal now faces Federal charges of illegal use of a telephone access device (punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine) and computer fraud (punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine).

SDSC director Sid Karin takes the incident very seriously. He emphasized to HPCwire, "We need to use strong encryption technology on the national information infrastructure to make systems more secure and to preserve data privacy. Such secure systems are necessary for the development of a robust, commercially viable information infrastructure to be developed, providing information, services, and resources that benefit users worldwide," Karin said.

In addition to the above statements from the San Diego Supercomputer Center, a report by Stephen Dill for the Associated Press includes comments by one official that described the alleged perpetrator, Kevin D. Mitnick, as "the most wanted hacker in the world, a notorious computer vandal and a fugitive."

Stephen Dill recounted that in more than two years on the run, Mitnick allegedly pilfered thousands of data files and at least 20,000 credit card numbers, worming his way into even the most sophisticated systems. He once broke into a top-secret military defense system as a teen-age prank, and apparently infiltrated one computer too many this time.

One of his latest victims, computer security expert Tsutomu Shimomura, was so angered that he made it his crusade to track Mitnick down. With his help, the FBI traced Mitnick to a Raleigh apartment and arrested him Wednesday.

Mitnick, 31, was charged with computer fraud, punishable by 20 years in prison, and illegal use of a telephone access device, which carries a maximum 15-year sentence. Both crimes are also punishable by $250,000 fines. He already was wanted in California for allegedly violating probation on a previous hacking conviction. A hearing was scheduled for Friday.

"He was clearly the most wanted computer criminal in the world," Kent Walker, an assistant U.S. attorney in San Francisco who helped coordinate the investigation, told The New York Times. "He allegedly had access to corporate trade secrets worth billions of dollars. He was a very big threat."

Mitnick had been on the run since 1992. Authorities say he broke into many of the nation's telephone networks, and most recently he had become a suspect in a rash of break-ins on the global Internet computer network, Dill reported.

"He's a computer terrorist," said John Russell, a U.S. Justice Department spokesman.

Mitnick's downfall began Christmas Day when he broke into the computer of Tsutomu Shimomura, a researcher at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, and stole security programs he had written.

Incensed, Shimomura canceled a ski vacation and assembled a team of computer experts to hunt down the intruder. They traced Mitnick to Netcom, a nationwide Internet access provider, and with the help of federally subpoenaed phone records determined that he was placing calls from a cellular phone near Raleigh-Durham International Airport, the Times said.

Early Monday morning, Shimomura drove around Raleigh with a telephone company technician. They used a cellular frequency direction-finding antenna hooked to a laptop to narrow the search to an apartment complex. The FBI arrested Mitnick after a 24-hour stakeout.

Shimomura, 30, attended Mitnick's prearraignment hearing Wednesday at the federal courthouse in Raleigh. At the end of the hearing, a handcuffed Mitnick turned to Shimomura, whom he had never met, according to the Times. "Hello, Tsutomu," Mitnick said. "I respect your skills." Shimomura nodded solemnly.

Authorities characterize Mitnick as a program pirate obsessed with cracking secret access codes. He began hacking in high school, breaking into the school district's main computers and calling himself "Condor," from the Robert Redford CIA movie "Three Days of the Condor."

As a teen-age prank in 1982, he allegedly broke into a North American Air Defense Command computer in Colorado Springs, Colo. He once altered a phone program to misdirect federal agents trying to trace his call, sending them barging into the home of a Middle Eastern immigrant watching television.

In 1989, he admitted infiltrating Digital Equipment Corp.'s computer system and also stealing 16 MCI telephone codes. He was sentenced to a year in federal prison, where officials considered him so dangerous they wouldn't let him near a telephone, said Dill.

After his prison term, Mitnick was under conditional release for three years. Authorities were chasing him for reportedly violating that probation when he disappeared in November 1992.