Kevin Mitnick, the most famous of hackers

Kevin Mitnick, the most famous of hackers

Kevin Mitnick

In the early to mid 1990s, Kevin Mitnick lived as a fugitive in Denver for a long time using the assumed name of Eric Weisz. Maybe this name doesn't tell you anything, but you surely know the person thus registered in the registry office and better known as Harry Houdini. The mere fact of hiding using the real name of the greatest magician of all time tells us something important about Mitnick, whose greatest passion has in fact, since childhood, been magic.

The power of magic

Born in 1963 in Van Nuys, a small town just outside Los Angeles, Kevin Mitnick is the son of separated parents. The mother has to work overtime to support the family. And so, Kevin finds himself spending a lot of time alone, often wandering around Los Angeles using the bus.

However, the cost of the ticket is an obstacle to his city excursions. And it is here that the passion for magic is revealed in its true essence. What fascinates Mitnick are not so much the techniques of prestidigitation or the like, but the art of deception, which he will cultivate throughout his life. Taking advantage of some ruse, Mitnick thus manages to get a bus driver to tell him where he could buy a punch machine used to stamp old bus tickets.

Not only that: Mitnick, who is 12 years old at the time, he sneaks into a bus depot and also manages to recover a slew of still unused tickets. From that moment on, bus transfers will all be free for him. If you like, this is Mitnick's first "hacker" enterprise, who in truth has always preferred to speak of "social engineering", to underline how behind all his enterprises - in addition to technical ability - there is also and above all the ability to trick people into revealing what, starting with account credentials, they should never have disclosed.

Computers are coming!

During Mitnick's teenage years, however, we enter the technologically crucial 1980s. The first personal computers begin to spread and with them the possibility of exploiting them to sneak into the computer systems of various companies. For Mitnick, the temptation to discover this world is irresistible: this is also a form of magic, exploiting computers to perform actions that seem impossible in the eyes of most people.

In 1979 he performed his first real Just hacking, using a telephone number obtained from a friend, he manages to sneak into the system of the IT company Dec and clone their software. In addition to using his skills to make free calls, Mitnick continues to hack into the systems of several companies for a few years. However, his exploits did not go unnoticed and in 1988 he received a first sentence of one year in prison and three of house arrest.

Evidently, he doesn't need the lesson: already during the house arrest phase Mitnick resumes his activity, puncturing the computer systems of the telephone company Pacific Bell, Motorola, Nokia, Nec, Apple and others. At that point, the FBI comes into play and Kevin Mitnick's life changes drastically, turning him into a fugitive.

One of the places where, in this phase, he will spend a lot of time is Denver, where he will take on the name by Eric Weisz, he will join the gym to change his physique, he will modify his walk and try to stay on his own to avoid being recognized in a period during which televisions often show his face to tell the FBI hunt.

A Fatal Mistake

Mitnick also begins working as a computer security expert for the law firm Holmes, Roberts and Owen. Even in this phase, however, his habits do not change. As the New York Times article that recounts his arrest explains, over the years as a fugitive Mitnick continued to "theft thousands of documents, and at least 20,000 credit card numbers, from computer systems across the nation" , as well as “exploiting his sophisticated skills to hack into many of the nation's telephone networks and vandalize government, corporate and university computer systems” .

In 1994, still 31 years old and on the run for two, Mitnick however, he makes a mistake that will cost him his freedom. On Christmas Day, he hacks into the computer of researcher Tsutomu Shimomura, a computer security expert employed by the San Diego Supercomputer Center. Shimomura doesn't take it well and sets to work to understand who is responsible for the raid, discovering that the modem from which it all started is connected to a telephone network near Raleigh, North Carolina, where Mitnick has moved in the meantime .

At 2 in the morning on February 16, 1995, the FBI breaks down the front door and arrests Mitnick. The charge is of illegal use of the telephone and computer fraud. During the trial, the prosecution manages to convince the judge that, if he wanted to, Mitnick would even have been able to hack into the most critical national security systems and, for example, autonomously launch a nuclear attack. A ridiculous accusation, but in the years in which all this still represents an absolute novelty, the judge is convinced of Mitnick's extreme danger and sentences him to five years in prison, one of which in solitary confinement.

But what are the reasons that led Mitnick to risk so much? The question is legitimate, above all because there is no evidence that the most feared hacker of the 1980s ever used his skills to earn money: "The motivations have always been opaque", we still read in the New York Times. “It was recently discovered that he had amassed thousands of credit card numbers, including those of some well-known Silicon Valley millionaires. Yet there is currently no evidence that Mitnick used these numbers. Furthermore, ignoring the possibility of economic gains deriving from the stolen information, Mitnick always seemed more interested in demonstrating that his technical skills were superior to the experts in charge of ensuring the security of computer systems".

Granted the penalty, Kevin Mitnick has finally changed his life, exploiting - as now almost always happens when it comes to hackers - his skills to work as a computer consultant, as a public speaker and to found the cybersecurity company Mitnick Security.

Mitnick is a bit the forefather of hackers who – still today – capture our imagination so much. The fate of the pioneer of computer pirates therefore seems to be similar to that experienced, for example, by many outlaws of the Far West, whose deeds have been narrated far and wide. And in fact, Mitnick too has already been the protagonist of books and even films, as is the case with Takedown. But to win the enviable position he enjoys today, the price Mitnick paid (especially in relation to the damage actually done) was probably too high.

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