A happy new year for hacker Mitnick

The notorious computer hacker recently regains his right to use his beloved ham radio as his years-long probation nears its end. He's schmoozing with Oscar winner Kevin Spacey.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
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Paul Festa
5 min read
Christmas came early for notorious computer hacker Kevin Mitnick.

A former fugitive from justice who wound up serving a five-year prison term for computer crimes against companies including Sun Microsystems and Motorola, Mitnick is enjoying a midlife renaissance. In a wide-ranging interview, the 39-year-old Mitnick discussed brightened prospects, which include the end of the three-year-long probation that followed his release from prison, the auctioning off of his memorabilia on eBay and the launch of a filmmaking venture with Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey.

Mitnick's holiday gift came courtesy of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which on Monday released a decision that grants Mitnick his ham radio license renewal after a protracted battle.

Ham radio has been a hobby for Mitnick since he was 13 years old. While he now uses it primarily to talk to friends, he credits the hobby with having led to his interest in computer hacking.

"It's...how I first became intoxicated with technology, with figuring out how things worked," Mitnick said on Tuesday. "Ham radio was all about communication but also about building radios. I loved taking things apart and then putting them together."

Mitnick's license came up for renewal in 1999, when he was still serving a prison sentence for computer fraud, theft and other convictions. The FCC held up his application until Monday, when it ruled that Mitnick was sufficiently rehabilitated to deserve the renewal.

But the renewal came with a steep price: $16,000 in legal fees, according to Mitnick.

"It's the most expensive ham license in the world," Mitnick observed. "But I prevailed."

In its order, the FCC detailed Mitnick's various convictions and concluded that his rehabilitation was genuine and complete.

"Mr. Mitnick is a convicted felon," reads the decision. "His illegal activities include the interception of electronic communications, computer fraud, wire fraud, and damaging computers...He started hacking as an inquisitive teenager and wound up a disgraced felon...It is now concluded that Kevin David Mitnick has been sufficiently rehabilitated to show that he now possesses the requisite character for the renewal of his licenses in the amateur radio service."

Fund-raising and moviemaking
In order to defray legal costs associated with the FCC fight, Mitnick in October tried to auction off computers that law enforcement authorities had seized as evidence and later returned to him. It was not the first time Mitnick's online auctions had made the news.

Mitnick canceled the computer auctions on eBay, however, citing a flood of bogus bids.

Since then, Mitnick has listed three new items: a signed galley of The Art of Deception: Controlling the Human Element of Security, the recent book on computer security Mitnick cowrote with William Simon, complete with a chapter that didn't make it into the published version; the computer on which he wrote his share of the book; and his OKI-900 cell phone.

Mitnick also plans to relist the computers that were seized as evidence, and will link to those auctions from his Web site.

Should the eBay auctions and book royalties fail to pay his bills, Mitnick could turn to another potential money-making venture: making corporate security training films with Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey.

Spacey, who last month launched an online script-solicitation site called Triggerstreet.com, initially approached Mitnick about making a movie based on his computer exploits. But under the terms of his plea bargain, Mitnick is prohibited for seven years from profiting from any sale of his story.

Instead, Mitnick showed Spacey a screenplay he'd developed for his own information-security corporate training company, Defensive Thinking. The film proposed to teach employees how to recognize and resist so-called social engineering hacking techniques.

"The idea is to show how to prevent the organization from getting conned," Mitnick said.

Spacey agreed to the proposal, and he and Triggerstreet have negotiated, but not signed, a deal to coproduce between three and 15 films.

What is Kevin Spacey, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in "American Beauty," doing producing corporate training videos?

Both Triggerstreet and Mitnick portrayed the partnership as the marriage of high-tech with filmmaking know-how.

"We're going to produce it just like we would a feature film," said Spacey's business partner Dana Brunetti. "We're going to make sure that the story is there and shoot it as though it were a 45-minute film we were going to release in theaters.

"People making training videos for corporations know everything they need to know about the subject matter, but they don't know what they need to know about making films. The combination of our knowledge and (Mitnick's) will be the perfect mold."

Mitnick will appear in the films, but Spacey is not expected to do more than make a cameo appearance.

Both sides--which will create a joint production company called Defensive Films--said they were in agreement on the terms of their partnership and expected to sign a deal within weeks. Brunetti expects to produce the first film by the spring.

In addition to his auctions and movies and ham radio renewal, Mitnick is looking forward to the January lifting of fairly severe probation restrictions he's had to observe since his release from prison on Jan. 21, 2000. Under the terms of a plea agreement, Mitnick has been unable to use a computer, access the Internet or act as a computer consultant without the permission of his probation officer.

Mitnick has succeeded in getting that permission for a variety of activities, including writing the information security book and testifying before the U.S. Senate and the Commission on National Security.

"In four weeks I'll be free to do whatever I want," Mitnick said. "Within the law of course."

In recent months, Mitnick has largely relied on his girlfriend, Darci Wood, to receive and send Internet messages and perform other computer-related tasks forbidden to him under the terms of his probation.

On her LabMistress.com site, Wood has also kept a detailed Web log, or blog, which has kept interested readers abreast of her and Mitnick's activities.

"From the server logs we can see that a lot of .gov addresses are visiting this blog," Mitnick said. "So it looks like my probation officer doesn't have to do a lot of work to keep track of me."