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Books present two sides
of super-hacker Mitnick

February 7, 1996
Web posted at: 7:30 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Miles O'Brien

(CNN) -- The police charged him with theft, and computer experts said that he was capable of doing great damage. Now a pair of books is out with conflicting accounts of the so-called super-hacker Kevin Mitnick, who was arrested last year in what at first seemed to be a brilliant cyber break-in.


One year after he led a thrilling electronic chase across cyberspace to find a wanted computer criminal, Internet security sleuth Tsutomu Shimomura has put the story in black and white, on the pages of his new book "Takedown."

"A lot of this electronic chase story is very much the same old detective story, but everything is different," Shimomura says.

You may recall the tale: On Christmas Day 1994, an intruder broke into Shimomura's well-fortified computers linked to the San Diego Supercomputer Center. The cyber-burglar made off with a hacker's treasure trove of files, e-mail, and programs which could be used to exploit weaknesses in computer networks.

Working nearly non-stop for six days, Shimomura helped the FBI trace the hacker's electronic trail.

At the other end is Kevin Mitnick, a man with a long rap sheet of computer crimes -- and, at the time of his arrest, the FBI's most wanted computer criminal. But since no one has ever alleged that he profited from his computer crimes, he is considered a rather enigmatic character.

"From what I have seen, he is not a very nice guy. He seems very vengeful. I've seen him threaten people on-line. Tried to be malicious -- beyond being a prankster. Maybe that's what leads me to believe it's a notion of power that he is after. But, in a way, nobody speaks better for Kevin than Kevin himself," Shimomura says.


And Kevin has spoken -- at length -- to journalist Jonathan Littman. While still on the run, Mitnick called Littman repeatedly, giving him the grist for his new book "The Fugitive Game."

It offers a shades-of-gray counterpoint to Shimomura's version of the pursuit of Mitnick. Littman says Mitnick's reputation as a hacker capable of crippling the Internet is way overblown.

"He wasn't at the level to really cause damage. And that's one of the twists of this story. Mr. Shimomura has the brilliance and the tools to write programs that are far more dangerous than Kevin Mitnick," Littman says.

Littman takes aim at Shimomura's co-author, New York Times reporter John Markoff, who first publicized Mitnick's cyber-escapades aimed at phone and computer companies, nuclear laboratories, and even the Pentagon in the 1991 book "Cyberpunk."

Markoff, whose e-mail was raided by Mitnick, was an invited guest on Shimomura's cross-country pursuit. Markoff's critics say the front page story which resulted was hyped to enhance its value to publishers and Hollywood.

"It's clearly outrageous. I was a reporter who was covering a story. It was a good story. If I could report and write this story again, I'd do it exactly the same way. This was a hunted guy. He was causing a lot of people a lot of problems, and he had done it a lot before. I mean, there is nothing innocent about Kevin Mitnick," Markoff says.

On that point, there's no disagreement. Even Kevin Mitnick won't deny he has committed computer crimes. But he and Littman believe his offenses have been wildly exaggerated and that Mitnick is a monster made by the media.

That is not to say real monsters aren't out there causing some real harm. And on that point, there is also no debate. "Ironically, Mitnick, in a strange way, has done us a favor. He showed us that the Internet is not secure, and that we better start making it secure, and thinking about protecting privacy," Littman says.

"I see it as an opportunity to try and help educate people on what's happening in our lives here, that we are putting our lives on-line, what's at risk and what can we do about it," Shimomura says.

Neither innocent victim nor mega-monster, Kevin Mitnick has become a symbol of the insecurities of the information age.

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