The case of the kung fu 'phreak'

Did Kevin Mitnick really trash-talk his hunter, Tsutomu Shimomura, about his kung fu ability? The real kung fu prankster is unmasked.
Written by Kevin Poulsen, Contributor
Two days after computer security expert Tsutomu Shimomura suffered the now-legendary Christmas Day 1994 hack-attack that launched his search for Kevin Mitnick, a mysterious message left on his voice mail box added real-world menace to the cyberspace crime.

"Damn you, my technique is the best," said an odd voice in a faux-British accent. "I know sendmail technique, and my style is much better ... Me and my friends, we'll kill you."

Three days later the caller left another message, this time beginning with a kung fu scream and affecting the voice of an actor in a martial arts film: "Your security technique will be defeated. Your technique is no good."

In a third message, on Feb. 4, 1995, the caller chided Shimomura, who he called "grasshopper," for mentioning the messages in a Newsweek article on the intrusion and for putting digitized copies on the Internet. "Don't you know that my kung fu is the best?"

The taunting phone calls were presumed to be from Shimomura's intruder, and they became a fixture in the Shimomura vs. Mitnick manhunt story. Digitized copies can be found on the official Web site for Shimomura's book, "Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw -- By The Man Who Did It."

The equation of hacking with kung fu fighting has become a cultural touchstone in its own right, and on more than one occasion the "Lone Gunmen" hackers on Fox's "The X-Files" have been heard to mutter, "My kung fu is the best."

The real kung fu 'phreak'
The only problem is, the thinly disguised voice never sounded at all like Kevin Mitnick, and two of the messages came after the hacker had been arrested.

"I heard that this guy named Shimomura had been hacked ... So I just thought, What the hell, I'd leave some voice mails," says 31-year-old Zeke Shif. "I used to watch kung fu movies a lot."

Under the handle "SN," Shif once had a solid reputation in the computer underground as a "phone phreak" (i.e., phone hacker). But he says that, by 1995, his fear of "The Man" had long since scared him straight; he simply succumbed to the temptation to make some prank phone calls.

"I thought I'd be funny," says Shif, who like many hackers from the early 1990s has gone on to work in the computer security trade, for Virginia-based Network Security Technologies Inc.

The matter became less amusing when Shif read the news reports on Feb. 15, 1995. "I found out Mitnick got caught, and they were trying to link that to the voice mail," says Shif, who responded by calling Shimomura again. "I left a pre-emptive messages, saying, listen, this has nothing to do with any Mitnick or anything, I'm just making fun of kung fu movies."

And this time, he didn't call him grasshopper.

Editorial standards