Hacker invaded the wrong man's cyberspace

by Carrick Mollenkamp

Copyright © 1995, News & Observer

Feb 17, 1995

RALEIGH (10:08 p.m.) -- Kevin Mitnick has a lot of friends. Tsutomu Shimomura isn't one of them.

But this week, the two crossed paths -- first, in the incorporeal world of cyberspace. Later, they met in person, Shimomura dressed in his relaxed computer programmer's garb, Mitnick in a sagging black jumpsuit and ankle cuffs.

The intense manhunt for Mitnick, allegedly the biggest thief in the vast, complex web of the Internet, was over.

On a rainy Friday afternoon, Mitnick was led from his bond hearing at the federal courthouse in Raleigh to a blue van with darkened windows. He ducked his head, ignoring photographers' pleas for a mug of the hacker known as the Condor.

By next week, Shimomura, the man responsible for Mitnick's capture, hopes to be skiing around Lake Tahoe. There it will be quiet, peaceful and far from the frenzied week he spent in Raleigh searching for Mitnick.

"Life is short," the intense 30-year-old Shimomura said during a two-hour interview Thursday night.

Perhaps too short to chase the Kevin Mitnicks of the world.

"He could have done a lot more damage with the knowledge he had," Shimomura said. "He could have gone and wantonly destroyed things. Well, we don't know that he actually didn't."

Shimomura is dressed in what he usually wears: California comfortable. Sandals dangling off his feet. Black shorts. A black T-shirt that reads, "Flying to eternity, but still with us."

Sitting next to him is his friend and partner, Julia Menapace, herself a security expert and former programmer for Apple Computer who grew up in Durham and attended Duke University.

As a child, Menapace, who now lives in Northern California, often took long hikes along the Eno River or through Duke Forest -- trails she wanted to show Shimomura this week. But there wasn't time.

"It was an intense week," Menapace said. "We have been saying, 'Let's get this over with.'"

Shimomura grew up around Princeton University, the son of two biochemists. Today a senior researcher at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, Shimomura skipped through high school straight to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

TV reporters from Toronto, Australia and Japan all wanted to talk to him. Playboy and People magazines wanted interviews. A Newsweek photographer even rented a suite in the Sheraton Imperial just to have the perfect lighting.

Shimomura accommodated the magazine photographer. He struck various poses with his RDI Powerlite 85, a portable computer with 1.6 gigabytes -- 10 times the capacity of the average portable. While Shimomura often slips into tech-speak, he also realizes a photographer needs the perfect setting.

"This blue carpet really sucks," he said at one point.

It had been a long day.

The technological odyssey began Christmas Day when Mitnick allegedly broke into Shimomura's vast computer system in his San Diego beach house -- showing a bravado that led to his downfall.

But to get to Shimomura's system, the hacker had to masquerade as a friendly user. To do that, he hopped from site to site on the Internet. His last hop, before entering Shimomura's system like a quiet thief, was onto a workstation operated by Menapace.

Shimomura and Menapace began investigating almost immediately.

"We basically walked around on-line looking for clues," Menapace said.

The search took eight weeks. During that time, the hacker apparently used some software tools he stole from Shimomura for other break-ins. His alleged crime spree threw many in the computer industry into a panic as the hacker gobbled up databases, credit card numbers and phone records.

Shimomura and Menapace, along with a partner on the West Coast, worked to track cellular transmissions and file transfers, which the hacker buried inside various Internet service providers.

"He didn't think anybody was watching him," Menapace said.

The calls eventually were traced to Research Triangle Park. Last Sunday, Shimomura caught a flight for Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Within 30 minutes, he and a Sprint technician had tracked the hacker to within 100 meters.

Three days later, with Shimomura and Menapace waiting in a van, the FBI and a fugitive task force went to arrest Mitnick. For an unknown reason, agents waited five minutes for Mitnick to answer the door.

On Friday, law enforcement officials said it is not their habit to slam down doors on nonviolent criminals.

However, it is speculated that during those five minutes, Mitnick was at his computer, destroying files that have yet to be identified.