Relief, anger greet Mitnick plea

The hacker's captor hopes there's no sequel -- but the 'Free Kevin' band vows to fight on.

When imprisoned hacker Kevin Mitnick pleaded guilty to seven felonies last Friday -- assenting to a plea agreement that may see him released by the end of the year -- the news quickly spread to observers with very different interpretations of its significance.

Among them is the man who caught Mitnick four years ago, and the activist who's been calling for his freedom ever since.

Mitnick's victims, however, are mum. Novell Inc. (Nasdaq:NOVL) and Sausalito, Calif.-based virtual community The Well both declined to comment on Friday's plea, in which Mitnick admitted to penetrating their networks by, in the case of The Well, using his technical expertise and, with Novell, impersonating company employees. In all, Mitnick pleaded guilty to cracking computers at six software companies, two Internet service providers and the University of Southern California.

Mitnick's father was happy with the plea agreement. "I'm pleased that it's over, and I'm relieved for my son. He's been living in such a stressful environment for such a long time," said Alan Mitnick, who also expressed appreciation for the grassroots "Free Kevin" movement.

The leader of that pro-Mitnick movement was less enthusiastic. "It's outrageous. Kevin was forced into this position by the overwhelming resources at the government's disposal," said Eric Corley. "The government could do whatever they wanted, and Kevin was in prison trying to organize his defense with 15 minute collect phone calls."

Mitnick campaign not over
Corley, better known by his nom de plume Emmanuel Goldstein, is the editor of the magazine "2600, The Hacker's Quarterly," and the mastermind behind a long campaign of picketing, protests and "Free Kevin" bumper stickers. He admits that the guilty plea complicates the fight for the hacker's freedom, but insists that it's not over yet.

"Right now, were all kind of trying to figure out where we stand, and there's a lot of private talking going on about where we should go from here," Corley said.

"But the Free Kevin movement is gathering steam, it's not dying off."

Corley points out that Mitnick is still facing a 1992 California state computer fraud charge that could land him up to four years additional years in prison. Moreover, he says, the real story of U.S. v. Mitnick has yet to be told.

"What this all boils down to is the powerlessness of the individual versus the state," Corley said. "When they want to get you, they'll get you, and they'll spare no expense doing it."

Shimomura: No sequel, please
Tsutomu Shimomura, the computer security expert who spearheaded the cross-country electronic manhunt that lead to Mitnick's 1995 arrest, learned of the plea while skiing in Nevada. "I hope all this can help people feel more in control as the Internet becomes increasingly a part of their lives," Shimomura said Friday.

Shimomura said he's had little interest in the Mitnick case since the arrest, but he partially credits the publicity surrounding it with making cyberspace a safer place. "I think there is a lot more awareness these days about security and privacy, and that's good," he said. "People have a better understanding of the risks, and what they can do about them."

Shimomura, along with New York Times journalist John Markoff, contributed to that awareness by authoring the 1996 book "Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw -- By The Man Who Did It." The book, Shimomura said, was intended "to let people understand that there are rules here, just as in the real world, and there are things that are OK, and there are things that aren't OK."

A movie version of the book, from Miramax's genre label Dimension Films, is slated for release this year. "I really hope there won't be a sequel," says Shimomura, expressing the one sentiment that both sides can agree on.

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


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