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Security Response

Kevin Mitnick - The Hacker as Anti-Hero

Created: 08 Aug 2007 07:00:00 GMT • Updated: 23 Jan 2014 18:47:15 GMT
David McKinney's picture
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The hacker's place in the pop culture continuum is as anti-hero. This is an image portrayed in movies and novels - the hacker is a wild-card with the power of deus ex machina who can be called upon to cheat technology or exploit a loophole in the system. Since computers don't lie and the system is perfect, the hacker invokes black arts in gross defiance of reality and the law in order to accomplish his (as hackers are overwhelmingly portrayed as male) goals. Yet we often sympathize with the fictional hacker for this exact reason. The system irks us and we often wish we could circumvent it.

The nineties had its own hacker anti-hero: Kevin Mitnick.

Most of Mitnick's story has been told by the media and in a book entitled Takedown, by John Markoff and Tsutomo Shimomura. John Markoff covered the Mitnick story for the New York Times. Tsutomo Shimomura is a security expert who aided in capturing the hacker **bleep** (anti)hero. Markoff detractors claim that many of the events he reported were embellished or based on unsubstantiated rumors. This added to the mystique surrounding Mitnick since nobody was sure what crimes he had committed or what he was capable of.

What we do know about Kevin Mitnick's story is that he served five years in prison for illegally accessing computer networks and stealing intellectual property. Many people thought he was persecuted unjustly for the act of liberating information or pursuing mere intellectual curiosity. His plight inspired a "Free Kevin" movement. Upon his release, he was forbidden from using computers or any communications device other than a landline telephone for a period of time.

It was the negative coverage in the media that helped turn him into a cause célèbre. Miramax started work on a film based on Markoff's book. When the hacking magazine 2600 caught wind of it, they managed to get a copy of the screenplay. In response, Emmanuel Goldstein made the documentary Freedom Downtime. At the time, Kevin was still incarcerated and awaiting trial.

The Kevin Mitnick story, and the controversy that surrounded it, helped to put a face on hacking and computer security in the media. For the first time, the general public realized that the hacking subculture, like any subculture, included different types of people with different objectives - some legal and some not - but all of them were fascinated with exploring the outer limits of technology. People began to understand that malicious hackers and security researchers often plied the same skills but to different ends, separated only by their ethics.

As the nineties closed out, it seemed that public interest in hacking and computer security had increased substantially. Hacking was a subject that was no longer limited to the science fiction aisle of bookstores; instead, it had moved into the mainstream of society. Storefront displays were suddenly plastered with titles like Hacking Exposed. Even people outside of the hacking and computer security subculture were signing up to become security professionals. Mitnick himself turned in his black hat to start up a security consulting business and author a number of books on the topic of security. The hacker anti-hero had finally gone mainstream.