Internet

Mitnick reacts to speaking ban

The convicted hacker is back in the news over the Justice Department's concern with his speaking on the lecture circuit.

Convicted hacker Kevin Mitnick is back in the news over the Justice Department's unhappiness with his speaking on the lecture circuit.

Mitnick, recently released from prison, was told by his probation officer earlier this month that such appearances violate the terms of his parole. Under his plea agreement, he is prohibited from using computers, mobile phones or any other device to access the Internet for three years.

News.com caught up with Mitnick as he prepared to challenge the decision to bar him from speaking and writing engagements.

CNET News.com: Since your release, where have you been engaged to speak and write?
I've been a commentator to Fox News, Court TV, CNN and Canada AM. I've written for Newsweek and Time, though Newsweek killed the article when they found out I was writing for Time the same week. I wrote an op-ed piece for the Guardian in the U.K. Brill's Content wanted me to write a critique of articles in the computer trade press, but I'm being precluded from doing that.

Couldn't there be some concern about your profiting from your crimes?
I signed an assignment agreement as part of my settlement. It says that if I were to write a book that I couldn't profit from that for seven years. It was a side agreement to settle the case. The money would go to the government for anything portraying the story of my crime. I don't intend to write a book about my experience because of that limitation.

How did the directive on speaking and writing come about?
I got a letter from the department on April 12th. My probation officer was very supportive of my doing these engagements, but when he submitted a request to his supervisor, they made an executive decision not to send it to the judge, to deny any further participation as a writer for technology or as a speaker. The April 12th letter confirmed that they had changed their mind.

What would the consequences be if you violated the terms of the letter?
It's clear if I violate their directive I will be back in court and they will try to put me back in jail.

Why do you think they've given you this prohibition?
The conditions of my probation are that I couldn't act as computer consultant or advisor, and the probation department is interpreting that to be that I'm not allowed to speak or write about technology. The ironic thing is that on March 2nd I testified before the Senate government affairs committee and assisted that committee on information security. Why would I get permission to assist the government in that regard but when I'm trying to support myself by assisting the private sector I'm told I can't do this type of work? And it's not only work--they didn't distinguish between paid and unpaid (activities). I'm being told I'm not allowed to work as a journalist or participate in speaking engagements period. I think it goes beyond computers because I was invited to Carnegie Mellon to speak on civil rights and that was denied as well.

Do you think the decision is fair?
Of course not. The First Amendment granting the right to express yourself is pretty much sacred in this country. That's why it's the First Amendment. I believe that what I have been doing in engaging in speaking engagements and writing op-ed pieces for Time and Newsweek is for the public good because I have been able to express why I think Internet security is important. It is helpful to corporations and individuals to get some insight from my background as a computer hacker. What I'm trying to do is make a positive contribution by educating people about the threats that are out there and letting them protect themselves. It's a shame and a disappointment that they won't let me do that.

Are you going to challenge the directive on First Amendment grounds?
I can tell you that judges have broad discretion and could impose conditions that restrict fundamental rights. But only if those restrictions are primarily designed to protect the public or rehabilitate the offender. My argument is, what I've been doing about information security has pretty much been about helping people understand how to protect themselves. That's for the public good. And it helps in my rehabilitation because it means taking my skills to benefit society while at same time trying to make a living. So how this directive that I not participate in writing articles or even critiquing articles--I don't see how that condition is related to the dual goal of protecting the public and my rehabilitation.

How would my speaking in front of a group of people and educating them on how to protect themselves be a danger to the public? If I were out there advocating how to break into computers I could understand the government's case. But it's the exact opposite.

Why do you think the government is doing this then?
I have to think some people in the administrative offices of the department don't like my celebrity in the computer field, and are trying to prevent me from speaking or writing about technology so that my celebrity status will die down. But I never discus my unauthorized access during these talks. I'm not telling the story of my crime at all.

What are your plans in light of this directive?
I have an attorney assisting me in preparing a motion that we're going to file in federal court to get this clarified. I am being ordered by a U.S. probation department (to refrain) from being a journalist or accepting speaking engagements, but at the restitution phase of my trial I had the prosecutors arguing that I could profit as journalist so they could ask for more restitution.

What's next for you?
Hopefully we're working on getting this back into court, and hopefully the court will be reasonable. If I can't speak and write, I don't know what I'll do.