A Year Ago: The Mitnick release - Is it over?

First published: Fri, 21 Jan 2000 09:40:16 GMT

Forget the national manhunt, book and movie deals, 'Free Kevin' movement, '60 Minutes' interview and legal marathon. Come Friday, for the first time since 1995, Kevin Mitnick will be free. Will he hack again?

Nearly five years after news of his arrest blazed across the nation's headlines, hacker Kevin Mitnick will walk out of a medium security prison in Lompoc, California, early Friday morning -- and into an uncertain future.

The 36-year-old hacker will be greeted at the gate by friends and family members. His mother will drive him to Los Angeles, where his first order of business will be to obtain a drivers licence, report to his new probation officer and see a doctor about injuries he suffered in a prison bus accident last year.

"He's having neck pains, and back and shoulder pains," said Reba Vartanian, Mitnick's grandmother. "He hasn't had a regular doctor in five years."

A free man for the first time since 1995, he will live in the Los Angeles suburb of Westlake Village with his father, Alan Mitnick, a general contractor.

Less clear is what Mitnick is going to do for a living. Under court order, the hacker is banned for three years from using any kind of computer equipment without the prior written permission of his probation officer -- a restriction that even the court acknowledged would affect his employability. "He's experiencing a lot of frustration over the things he can't do," said Eric Corley, editor of the hacker magazine 2600 and the leader of a "Free Kevin" grassroots movement. "Keep in mind this is someone who's been kept away from these things for five years, and when he gets out he won't even be able to touch them."

The restrictions, and long history of recidivism, makes one former friend and partner-in-crime pessimistic about Mitnick's future. "Do you cure a drug addict or alcoholic by incarceration on its own?" asked Lew DePayne, rhetorically. "Do you cure him by taking away his ability to earn a living?"

Mitnick and DePayne became friends in the late 1970s, when they were both teenagers. Together, they explored and manipulated the telephone network as Los Angeles' most notorious "phone phreaks." In the 1980s, DePayne seemingly dropped out of the scene, while Mitnick moved on to corporate computers and networks, developing a penchant for cracking systems in search of proprietary "source code," the virtual blueprints for a computer program or operating system.

Mitnick had already been in a series of minor skirmishes with the law when, in 1989, he suffered his first adult felony conviction for cracking computers at Digital Equipment Corporation and downloading source code. He served one year in federal custody, followed by three years of supervised release.

In 1992, Mitnick was charged with a violation of his supervision for associating with DePayne again. He went underground and online, using the Internet to crack computers belonging to such cell phone and computer makers as Motorola, Fujtsu and Sun Microsystems and copy more proprietary source code. The FBI captured him on February 15, 1995, when computer security expert Tsutomu Shimomura suffered an attack on his machine, and responded by tracking Mitnick to his hideout in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Shimomura and New York Times reporter John Markoff went on to write the book "Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw -- By The Man Who Did It." Shimomura and Markoff sold the movie rights to Miramax Films, who cast Skeet Ulrich as Mitnick. But since shooting wrapped on the project in December 1998 the movie has languished on the shelf with no known theatrical release date, surrounded by swirling rumors of a direct-to-video or cable TV release. Miramax publicists didn't return telephone inquiries about the project.

Mitnick's arrest began a series of courtroom battles over procedures and evidence that finally ended last year in a plea agreement.

The hacker pleaded guilty in March 1999 to seven felonies and admitted to his Internet hacking. In August 1999, Judge Marianna Pfaelzer sentenced him to 46 months in prison, on top of an earlier 22 months sentence for the supervision violation and cell phone cloning. With credit for his lengthy period of pre-trial custody, and some time off for good behavior, Mitnick's served just under five years in prison.

"My sincere hope is that he gets his act together and complies with the conditions of his supervised release and doesn't engage in further hacking activity," said Assistant US Attorney Christopher Painter, one of Mitnick's two federal prosecutors. Painter's work on the Mitnick case helped propel him to a new position as deputy chief of the US Department of Justice's computer crime and intellectual property section in Washington. He begins at the DOJ in March.

"I think that the significance of this case is that he was so prolific. He not only had done this once before, but he did it on such a large scale," Painter said. "If past ends up being prologue, then certainly we'll go back to court and deal with it at that time."

Greg Vinson, one of Mitnick's defense attorneys, foresees a rosier future for the hacker, perhaps with a job that exploits his famous ability to "social engineer" people into doing his bidding.

"I think he's had a number of different offers to kind of do PR-type of work," said Vinson, who also points out that Mitnick might still get a computer job. "You have to remember the order says, 'Without the prior express permission of the probation office.' So it's not absolutely prohibited."

If Mitnick can't use computers, he reportedly hopes to indulge his love for technology by returning to amateur radio, a childhood passion. Federal Communications Commission records show that Mitnick's license expired last month. According to Kimberly Tracey, a ham radio operator in Los Angeles and a friend of Mitnick's, he's been scrambling to renew it.

"This is going to be part of Kevin's life, because they've taken away computers and everything else," said Tracey. "I hope they don't take away this."

Mitnick was unavailable for comment on his imminent release. Sources close to the hacker say he granted the CBS news show "60 Minutes" an exclusive interview last week, which is scheduled to air Sunday.

But in an interview with ZDNet News last July, Mitnick complained about his treatment by the government prosecutors, who he said were "grossly exaggerating the losses in the case and the damages I caused."

Lew DePayne, Mitnick's former friend and codefendant, worries that Mitnick's anger will work against him in his new life. "I don't know if that's ever going to go away; I don't know if he'll be able to deal with it," said DePayne, speaking from his home in Palo Alto. California, where he's serving six months house arrest for aiding Mitnick's hacking during his fugitive years. "That's going to be a major stumbling block for him going forward."

DePayne said he last heard from Mitnick the night of his arrest, on a message left on his answering machine. Now 39-years-old, divorced and heading a small Internet company of his own, DePayne insists he doesn't plan on associating with the impish hacker he first met as a brash teenager two decades ago.

"I can't be fooling around with these stunts and practical jokes that Kevin might want to fool around with," said DePayne. "I'll miss Kevin. I won't miss the trouble he brings to the table."

Kevin Poulsen is a former hacker. He writes a weekly column for ZDTV's CyberCrime

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