San Francisco, Jan. 20 (Reuters): One of the world’s most famous computer hackers gets off probation this week and plans to dive back into the Internet, his former playground where breaking-and-entering landed him in jail for five years.
Tomorrow, 39-year-old Kevin Mitnick will log on to the Internet for the first time in eight years, during the live TechTV show Screen Savers. Also scheduled to be on the programme are Shawn Fanning, creator of Internet music downloading pioneer Napster, and Steve Wozniak, a co-founder of Apple Computer Inc.
Mitnick says he is ready to go to work, ironically, in a position where he will be helping protect companies against the kind of hacking he used to do. He has a job interview scheduled, but declines to name the company.
“What’s going to be a struggle ... is convincing people in the security space that a lot of what was written about me is not true, and what is true, I’m sorry about,” he told Reuters in an interview on Saturday. “I paid my debt to society and I’m trying to do a positive thing. I can’t change the past.”
One of the first computer hackers prosecuted, Mitnick was labelled a “computer terrorist” and became a cause celebre after leading the FBI on a three-year manhunt for breaking into computer networks and stealing software at companies including Sun Microsystems Inc. , Novell Inc. and Motorola Inc.
He pleaded guilty in March 2000 to wire and computing fraud and intercepting communications and has been on supervised release since then, with restrictions on his travel, employment and use of technology. He has been allowed to use a cell phone and computer, but not one connected to the Internet.
“I’m looking forward to using email. My friends and family are tired of checking email for me” and printing it out, he said. He’s also excited to use his first personal digital assistant, a Blackberry his girlfriend bought him as a getting-off-probation present. “I’ve lost out on a lot of time and education and research,” he added. While he will be able to surf the Net and send e-mails, Mitnick will still be barred from making money off his story until 2010, a condition of his release he plans to fight.
“I believe, and some attorneys have advised me, that it raises constitutional issues,” he said. “The government can’t disadvantage anyone from exercising free speech.”
Last year he challenged the revocation of his ham radio licence and is now able to enjoy a hobby he’s had since he was 13. While amateur radio was an innocent activity in high school, phone phreaking — hacking the phone system — was getting into grey area, he said.
“That’s where I got hooked on exploiting technology for the adventure, the thrill, the intrigue,” he said. “I was figuring out how the phone company operated, the internal procedures.”
He learned how to make free phone calls and do pranks, like switch a friend’s home phone service to a pay phone setting.
Then he moved on to computers, creating a programme in school for fun that would steal passwords, breaking into computers to learn how phone networks operate and downloading proprietary software code to see how it works. He said he didn’t steal or make any money, or destroy any computers.
“At the time, I didn’t believe I was going to get caught. I looked at it as very benign and trivial and more of a pain in the butt,” he said. “When they started to enact federal laws against computer hacking I continued in that mindset” without realising the seriousness of the activity.