The trials of Kevin Mitnick
By John Christensen
March 18, 1999
(CNN) -- Kevin David Mitnick -- once the most wanted computer hacker in the world, the inspiration for two Hollywood movies and a cyberspace cult hero -- had been scheduled to stand trial April 20 in Los Angeles in one of the most celebrated computer-related cases in history.
But it was announced Thursday that Mitnick has signed a plea agreement that reportedly will set him free after serving another year in prison.
He has been incarcerated since February 1995 on a 25-count indictment that includes charges of wire fraud and illegal possession of computer files stolen from such companies as Motorola and Sun Microsystems.
Mitnick was arrested after what Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Painter called "a countrywide hacking spree" that earned Mitnick a spot on the FBI's Most Wanted list.
Over a 2 1/2-year period, Mitnick was alleged to have hacked into computers, stolen corporate secrets, scrambled phone networks, broken into the national defense warning system and caused millions of dollars in losses.
After being tracked down in a dramatic bit of cyber-sleuthing by computer expert Tsutomu Shimomura, Mitnick was arrested by the FBI in a nondescript apartment complex in Raleigh, North Carolina.
In a 25-count indictment brought in Los Angeles, Mitnick was charged with computer and wire fraud and had been held without bail since his arrest. He was believed to have been held longer without a trial than any other prisoner in the United States.
"He's a danger to the community," said Painter. "We're talking about someone who has consistently and without self-control hacked into systems everywhere. He also was a fugitive and used multiple identities. We think there's a firm basis for holding him, and the courts have agreed."
'Murderers ... have suffered less'
But others believed that Mitnick, who had become a kind of cult hero, was being held unfairly and that the government was trying to make an example of him.
People claiming to be Mitnick supporters hacked into The New York Times and Yahoo! Web sites, demanding that Mitnick be freed. A bumper sticker that said "Free Kevin" was also widely distributed.
Steve Gold, news editor of Secure Computing magazine and a former hacker himself, told The Independent of London: "For all that he's done, there are despots and murderers out there who have suffered less than Kevin."
Mitnick, 35, grew up in a blue-collar family in California's San Fernando Valley. His parents divorced when he was 3 and, although shy and overweight, Mitnick demonstrated a genius for beating the system even as an adolescent.
At 13, he figured out how to punch bus tickets and get free rides. He graduated to ham radios and then became a phone "phreaker" -- using an electronic device to make free, long-distance calls -- before getting caught stealing computer manuals from Pacific Bell as a juvenile and being put on probation.
Aside from that case and the plea bargain, Mitnick has been found guilty in three other cases and sentenced to nearly three years in prison. Still pending are state charges related to Mitnick's alleged hacking into California Department of Motor Vehicles computers in 1992.
Inspiration for 'War Games'
Mitnick first received national attention in 1982 when he hacked into the North American Defense Command (NORAD), a feat that inspired the 1983 film "War Games." Also during the 1980s, he gained temporary control of three central telephone offices in New York City and all the phone switching centers in California. None of these incidents resulted in criminal charges.
But patience with his pranks ran out after he hacked into computers at Digital Equipment Corp. and stole $1 million in proprietary software.
Mitnick pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year in a low-security prison and three years of probation. But his attorneys convinced U.S. District Court Judge Mariana Pfaelzer that Mitnick had an addiction and she ordered that he serve his sentence in a halfway house for those with compulsive disorders.
Mitnick eventually took a job with a computer security firm, but was accused of violating the terms of his probation by hacking into voice mail systems at Pacific Bell in 1991. The federal government got a warrant for his arrest in 1992, and it was then that he became a fugitive.
Caging 'The Condor'
Mitnick is said to have used the name "Condor," after the Robert Redford character in the movie "Three Days of the Condor," during his time on the run.
During that period, he allegedly hacked into computers at Motorola, Nokia Mobile Phones, Fujitsu, Novell, NEC, Sun Microsystems, Colorado SuperNet and the University of Southern California. Painter declined to estimate the damages, but media reports have put them as high as $80 million.
His undoing was hacking into computer expert Shimomura's home computer and stealing information from him.
Infuriated, Shimomura helped the FBI track Mitnick down using laptop computers and a cell phone direction finder. Shimomura and New York Times reporter John Markoff collaborated on a book about Mitnick's capture, "Takedown."
A film version of "Takedown" is in "post-production," according to a spokesman for Miramax Films. No release date has been set.
'He's got a very curious mind'
Mitnick's defenders have maintained he was harmless, a hacker for whom the challenge was intellectual and technological.
"Mitnick isn't a thief or a terrorist," said his attorney, Donald Randolph. "He's a recreational hacker. He didn't do it for economic gain or damage anything, and there's no allegation that he attempted to damage anything."
"He's got a very curious mind," said his grandmother, Reba Vartanian. "He's never destroyed anything. He loves technology, he wouldn't hurt it."
But prosecutor Painter said that "in any hacking case, security has been breached. That means you have to take steps to wipe clean and change the paths of the system. That's substantial in itself. And if the victim is in an ongoing business, and they have lost proprietary material they need to maintain a competitive advantage, there may be serious losses attributable to that.
"Even if they're doing it for the glory of it, it ignores the point: If someone breaks into your house for the fun of it, you still suffer."
Adds Shimomura: "[Mitnick] left a lot of proprietary information where other people could get it. That's like someone breaking into your house, then leaving it unlocked and putting a sign outside."
Computer without a modem
Randolph said he believed the government was being especially harsh with Mitnick to discourage hackers and cyberterrorists.
"If they really had a terrorist who had a name like Mitnick does, and if he was convenient to the government, they would divert their interest," Randolph said. "But he's the best game in town."
Despite the non-violent nature of his crimes and the charges in the upcoming case, Mitnick has been held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles, where inmates are often held for violent crimes. His appeals for bail have been turned down by every court they've been sent to, including twice by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mitnick's trial had been delayed several times due its complexity, and often at the request of the defense. Randolph said Mitnick's limited access to a computer has hampered his efforts to assist in his defense.
Randolph tried repeatedly to get Mitnick a computer so he could review evidence that reportedly includes witness statements totaling 1,400 pages, 10 gigabytes of electronic evidence and 1,700 exhibits in all.
But after one hearing, Randolph told reporters that Judge Pfaelzer "didn't seem to want to hear 'computer' and 'Mitnick' in the same sentence."
The court ultimately allowed Mitnick access to a laptop, but it was in a room for attorney-client meetings, and he was always monitored by someone from Randolph's office. And there was no modem or phone line.
In the meanwhile, Mitnick has been serving out a 14-month sentence for violating his probation in the Digital break-in and eight months for a 1995 North Carolina charge of possession of an unauthorized access device.
"Kevin's problem is that he has been convicted multiple times," said journalist Markoff. "Whatever you think of his crime, he has tripped the relevant federal guidelines. And the judge gave him a break before. Now he's before her again for another series of federal crimes."
Vartanian said the government was "foolishly paranoid" about her grandson, who calls her in Las Vegas every day -- collect.
"I just feel if they would only permit him to get gainful employment in this field, he would be an asset to the community and to the youth who look up to him," Vartanian said. "I know he's gotten into some difficulties, but never to harm anybody."
Randolph said Mitnick has matured "significantly" and "would like somehow to be gainfully employed in computer security issues."
As to whether he can be trusted when he is freed, Randolph said, "How can you trust any ex-con? The answer is you have to be satisfied that he's been rehabilitated as to what he did wrong, and then you move on."
"He's been in a bad place for rehab the last couple of years," says Markoff. "But he's been such a symbol in society, maybe he'll find a situation where he can re-enter. There are a lot of people who want to support him, and that's a good thing. I hope Kevin gets his life together."
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