Kevin Mitnick was the FBI’s most wanted hacker in the ’90s. He was hiding in plain sight in Denver. – The Denver Post | #computerhacking | #hacking


While the FBI was hunting down notorious hacker Kevin Mitnick in the early 1990s, a newcomer named Erik Weisz showed up in Denver, moved into an apartment on 16th Street and got an IT job at a local law firm.

Walking with a slight limp, Weisz shared similar traits to Mitnick, such as his height and brown hair. But Weisz was much thinner and more fit than the pudgy-faced Mitnick pictured in law enforcement most-wanted posters. He kept to himself and loved his systems administrator gig helping with computer security for Holme Roberts & Owen, housed in the city’s iconic “Cash Register” building. He even suggested the firm switch to secure tokens — what today is called two-factor authentication — because having employees dial into the corporate network was insecure.

“They were calling me their resident hacker. But they had no idea who I was,” said Mitnick, whose alias was an homage to Harry Houdini’s birth name.

The FBI finally caught up with Mitnick in February 1995 after he hacked into the computer of Tsutomo Shimomura, a research scientist. Shimomura traced the hack to a modem connected to a cell tower near Raleigh, N.C. Mitnick, then, 31, who had been breaking into communications company networks and scamming free phone calls since he was a teenager in the 1980s, spent five years in prison, including a year in solitary confinement.

Now 54, Mitnick seems far from the youth he once was. Unlike the shy loner he was often described as, the charismatic and cheerful guy runs a respected cybersecurity firm. On Tuesday, an audience in Denver watched in awe and horror as Mitnick showed how he uses hardware, phishing and social engineering to worm his way into “100 percent” of clients’ systems, partly by charming employees into handing over credentials. Invited by BBVA Compass bank, Mitnick is no longer the hacker feared by governments, telephone companies and the American public. In fact, the way Mitnick tells it, he never meant any harm.

“I never, in doing this, wanted to harm anybody. I was just having fun. I was being the magician by breaking the systems and getting the code,” said Mitnick, who was charged for wire fraud and possession of files Motorola and others. “That’s why I was going after cellphones, that’s why I was going after operating systems — to become better at hacking them.”

Not everyone agrees with Mitnick’s memory, including John Markoff, who covered Mitnick’s escapades for The New York Times and co-authored with Shimomura “Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnick.”

Said Markoff in an email: “What he did as an outlaw was to exploit the best quality in people — their desire to help. … Remember, he spent five years in prison for stealing software from a range of companies. He was sharing the software with an Israeli citizen. The cost to the companies was enormous. He also did lasting damage to individuals who lost their jobs as a result of his activities — something he has never acknowledged responsibility for.”

Mitnick said the software was shared with him and it had nothing to do with proprietary information. “I was never accused of sharing any source code let alone with an Israeli citizen,” he said in an email on Friday.

Mitnick told The Denver Post he does have regrets, especially after learning people lost their jobs at the Denver law firm, which is now part of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Mitnick wanted to become a magician. When he learned you could make free phone calls with a little blue box, he felt it was doable magic. He became curious about how phone systems work and ultimately hacked phone companies systems to learn more. Hacking into corporate networks and stealing data landed the teenager in jail. Yet, he kept at it through his 20s and became a fugitive in 1992.

He picked Denver because of the Rocky Mountains, and it was “as far away as I’ve ever been in my life,” Mitnick said.

“I just started creating resumes and looking at newspapers. I’d tailor my background to match 90 percent of what they were looking for,” he said. “I’d give my own references. It wasn’t hard. I created my own past.”

In Denver, he was an intentional loner. He didn’t date and was careful not to make any friends “because if I was ever on TV, they’d be able to identify me.” He had favorite bars and restaurants but kept conversation impersonal, never revealing his name or work. He changed his looks by working out at the YMCA and losing weight. He ditched his glasses. And he put pebbles in one shoe, which made it hurt to walk and changed his gait, “the No. 1 way you can be recognized,” said Mitnick, who spent evenings hacking.



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