Kevin Mitnick

9 Feb 2024

Kevin Mitnick, who at the dawn of widespread internet usage in the mid-1990s became the nation’s archetypal computer hacker — obsessive but clever, shy but mischievous and threatening to an uncertain degree — and who later used his skills to become “chief hacking officer” of a cybersecurity firm, died on Sunday in Pittsburgh. He was 59.

Kathy Wattman, a spokeswoman for the cybersecurity company he partly owned, KnowBe4, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.

Described by The New York Times in 1995 as “the nation’s most wanted computer outlaw,” Mr. Mitnick was a fugitive for more than two years.

He was sought for gaining illegal access to about 20,000 credit card numbers, including some belonging to Silicon Valley moguls; causing millions of dollars in damage to corporate computer operations; and stealing software used for maintaining the privacy of wireless calls and handling billing information.
Ultimately, he was caught and spent five years in prison. Yet no evidence emerged that Mr. Mitnick used the files he had stolen for financial gain. He would later defend his activities as a high stakes but, in the end, harmless form of play.

“Anyone who loves to play chess knows that it’s enough to defeat your opponent,” he wrote in a 2011 memoir, “Ghost in the Wires.” “You don’t have to loot his kingdom or seize his assets to make it worthwhile.”

How The Times decides who gets an obituary. There is no formula, scoring system or checklist in determining the news value of a life. We investigate, research and ask around before settling on our subjects. If you know of someone who might be a candidate for a Times obituary, please suggest it here.

Learn more about our process.
At the time of Mr. Mitnick’s capture, in February 1995, the computer age was still young; Windows 95 had not yet been released. The Mitnick Affair drove a fretful international conversation not just about hacking, but also about the internet itself.

“As a media celebrity, the internet is now seriously overexposed,” the Times columnist Frank Rich complained in March 1995, blaming the hoopla surrounding Mr. Mitnick.

Mr. Mitnick’s most spectacular crimes were his attempts to evade capture by the authorities. In 1993, he gained control of phone systems in California that enabled him to wiretap the F.B.I. agents pursuing him and confuse their efforts to track him. At one point they raided what they thought was Mr. Mitnick’s home, only to find there a Middle Eastern immigrant watching TV.

On another occasion, using a radio scanner and software, Mr. Mitnick discovered that F.B.I. agents were closing in on him. He fled his apartment, and when the authorities arrived, they found a box of doughnuts waiting for them.
After leaving prison, Mr. Mitnick read out a statement of self-defense. “My crimes were simple crimes of trespass,” he said. “My case is a case of curiosity.”

Kevin David Mitnick was born in the Van Nuys section of Los Angeles on Aug. 6, 1963, and grew up in that city. His parents, Alan Mitnick and Shelly Jaffee, divorced when he was 3 years old, and he was raised by his mother, a waitress.

Mr. Mitnick was a heavyset and lonely boy who, by the age of 12, had figured out how to freely ride the bus using a $15 punch card and blank tickets fished from a dumpster. In high school he developed an obsession with the inner workings of the switches and circuits of telephone companies. He pulled pranks at a high level, managing to program the home phone of someone he did not like so that each time the line was answered, a recording asked for a deposit of 25 cents.

He showed a willingness to violate the law flagrantly, breaking into a Pacific Bell office as a teenager and stealing technical manuals.
Now it is commonplace for hackers to find work by exposing the vulnerabilities of governments and corporations. KnowBe4, the company Mr. Mitnick partly owned, describes itself as “the provider of the world’s largest security awareness training.” The company says that a cybersecurity training curriculum that Mr. Mitnick designed is used by more than 60,000 organizations.

Writing in The New York Times Book Review about data privacy, the journalist and author Amy Webb in 2017 identified that once-hunted hacker with an epithet that would have baffled members of law enforcement and newspaper readers in the 1990s: “the internet security expert Kevin Mitnick.”

Write & Read to Earn with BULB

Learn More

Enjoy this blog? Subscribe to ilhamsuleyman

1 Comment

No comments yet.
Most relevant comments are displayed, so some may have been filtered out.