July 20, 2023, Growing up, I was an avid reader of 2600, the Hacker Quarterly, a magazine that opened my eyes to the fascinating world of cyber exploration. It was in these pages that I first encountered the name Kevin Mitnick, a figure who would become synonymous with the early days of hacking and cyber security. Mitnick, who passed away suddenly, was a complex figure, neither a hero nor a villain, but a man who left an indelible mark on the world of technology.
I had the chance to meet Mitnick once at a computer show near Rochester, New York. He was personable, with a quick wit and a knack for storytelling that made the complex world of hacking accessible to a wide-eyed kid like me. He was a man who lived in the gray areas of the digital world, a world that was just beginning to grapple with the implications of the internet and cyber security.
Mitnick’s story was one of intrigue and controversy. By 1992, federal agents were closing in on him, making him the FBI’s most-wanted hacker. But Mitnick was always one step ahead. As I remember the story, he had broken into the local phone network, which allowed him to hear the agents were going to search his apartment. After removing the electronics, he left behind a box of donuts in the refrigerator, labeled “FBI donuts” as a cheeky nod to his pursuers.1 When the searched happened, apparently they found the box and knew he was one step ahead. This probably angered them and contributed to his harsh treatment. This anecdote, among others, was recounted in his book, “Ghost in the Wires,” which detailed his life as a hacker and fugitive.
His subsequent arrest and imprisonment, including a stint in solitary confinement due to the authorities’ fear that he could “start a nuclear war by whistling into a pay phone,” sparked outrage among the hacker community. 2600, the magazine that had first introduced me to Mitnick, started the “Free Kevin Mitnick” movement, arguing that his punishment was disproportionate to his crimes.
Mitnick’s story is a cautionary tale about the early days of the internet, a time when the lines between exploration and exploitation were not yet clearly drawn. He was not a saint, but he was not a demon either. He was a man who pushed boundaries, sometimes too far, but always with a sense of curiosity and a desire to understand the digital world that was rapidly evolving around him.
In recent years, Mitnick had turned his skills to more legitimate pursuits, becoming a security consultant and author. He was looking forward to a new chapter in his life, excitedly anticipating the birth of his unborn son. His sudden passing (July 16, 2023)2 leaves a void in the world of cyber security, and our thoughts are with his family during this difficult time.
Kevin Mitnick’s legacy is complex, but his impact on the world of technology is undeniable. He was a pioneer, a provocateur, and a cautionary tale. His life serves as a reminder of the power of curiosity, the importance of ethical boundaries, and the potential for redemption. As we remember Mitnick, let us also remember the lessons his life can teach us about the digital world we now inhabit.