Remembering the legendary hacker and FBI fugitive following his death at 59
By Ben Liebing
Kevin Mitnick — the infamous hacker turned FBI fugitive, turned cyber security expert — is dead at age 59 after a prolonged battle with pancreatic cancer.
Mitnick was a legend in the cyber security and hacking world. In his own words, he “curiously” hacked his way through the early days of cell phones and the 1990s to become a notorious kind of Robin Hood-figure among both hackers and tech professionals alike.
At the time of his death, Mitnick was Chief Hacking Officer for the cyber security company, KnowBe4. He was living in Las Vegas.
But what was his favorite hack of all time? You won’t believe it until you see it. Check out this quick clip below from TMT’s 2018 Boot Camp, where he told the crowd how he hacked into a famous fast-food restaurant:
Born in 1963, Mitnick’s fascination with computers began early in his life. Raised in Los Angeles, California, he quickly earned a reputation for his computer hacking prowess during the 1980s and 1990s.
Mitnick’s unauthorized access to corporate networks and government databases earned him the moniker of “the most wanted computer criminal in the United States.” In 1995, he was arrested by the FBI and became the subject of an intense manhunt. His exploits fueled the public’s fear of cybersecurity breaches, making him a symbol of both fascination and trepidation.
Some critics argued that the charges against him were exaggerated and that his actions, while unauthorized and illegal, did not warrant the level of attention and punishment he received.
Supporters of Mitnick claimed that he was not a malicious hacker seeking to cause harm but rather a curious and talented individual with a penchant for exploration and a desire to understand complex systems. They contended that his actions were more akin to “white hat” hacking, where individuals uncover vulnerabilities to help improve security, rather than “black hat” hacking, which involves malicious intent.
Additionally, there were concerns about the fairness of Mitnick’s trial and the conditions of his pre-trial detention. Some believed that his prolonged pre-trial detention, which lasted over five years, was excessive and constituted a violation of his rights.
Chris Wysopal of white-hat hacking group L0pht tweeted: “His ingenuity challenged systems, incited dialogues, and pushed boundaries in cybersecurity. He will remain a testament to the uncharted power of curiosity.”
“My hacking activity actually was a quest for knowledge,” Mitnick said to Sen. Joseph Lieberman during a 2000 Congressional hearing. “The intellectual challenge, the thrill and the escape from reality.”
Stories like this added to his ethical outlaw persona: Once, a computer file containing 20,000 credit card numbers copied from the internet service provider Netcom was found on Mitnick’s computer after a 1994 arrest — but there was no evidence he ever used any of the accounts.
During his five-year prison sentence, many hackers—who considered his term excessive and unfair—banded together to smear, hack, and deface websites in protest (The New York Times, which some in the community blamed for exaggeration and over-publicity of Mitnick’s wrongdoing, being one of them).
Following his release in 2000, Mitnick began anew, transforming himself into an entrepreneur, author, and consultant, dedicated to promoting ethical hacking practices.
In the modern era marked by increasing cyber threats and data breaches, Mitnick’s journey serves as a powerful reminder of the ever-evolving ethics of hacking and digital security. Whatever his legend may be, Mitnick’s transformation into an advocate for responsible hacking is a story of redemption, unlimited curiosity, and positive change within the technology community.
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