R.I.P. Kevin Mitnick, 1963–2023

Kevin MitnickHackers’ hacker dies, aged 59.

Kevin Mitnick has lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. He leaves behind a wife, their unborn child and an entire culture he helped create.

The internet has many words to say about Kevin. In today’s SB Blogwatch, here are some of them.

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Your humble blogwatcher curated these words for you. Not to mention: Kevin trolls the FBI.

Kevin is Free

What happened? Alex Traub, Livia Albeck-Ripka and Orlando Mayorquin report—“The ‘Most Wanted Computer Outlaw’ Dies at 59”:

Box of doughnuts
The nation’s archetypal computer hacker — obsessive but clever, shy but mischievous and threatening to an uncertain degree — … died on Sunday in Pittsburgh [from] pancreatic cancer. … Mitnick’s most spectacular crimes were his attempts to evade capture.

In 1993, he gained control of phone systems in California that enabled him to wiretap the F.B.I. agents pursuing 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 … he fled his apartment, and when the authorities arrived, they found a box of doughnuts waiting for them.

Mitnick reached plea agreements [including] pleading guilty to computer and wire fraud. He was released from prison in 2000. … In 2015, he met Kimberly Barry [and] they married last year, after he learned of his cancer diagnosis. She survives him and is pregnant with his first child.

He was brilliant, says Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols—“A Hacker Hero Has Died”:

Left an indelible mark
I didn’t know Mitnick … well. But I did know him well enough to know he was brilliant. … I’ve been blessed to know many bright people. But I’ve known few whose life was a testament to the transformative power of second chances and the potential for redemption.

Mitnick’s hacking activities in the 1980s and 1990s were legendary. He breached the systems of some of the biggest corporations, including … DEC, IBM, Motorola, and Nokia. As a teenager, he became famous for infiltrating … NORAD—this episode would foreshadow the movie War Games. These exploits earned him a place on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

His passing is a significant loss to the cybersecurity community. His contributions to the field, unique insights, and relentless advocacy for better security practices have left an indelible mark.

He inspired a generation. Here’s Liam Proven—“RIP Kevin Mitnick”:

Pancreatic cancer
While not necessarily a software or hardware wizard, he was a genius social engineer. [He] used his know-how to trace a hoaxer making bomb threats. … The “Free Kevin” movement became a rallying cry for a new generation of … computer geeks [and] digital rights activists.

Mitnick was so celebrated that he had his own line of merchandise … and the highly imaginative movie Takedown was made about his pursuit and capture. Even his business card became well known: it is an embossed piece of metal that doubles as a lock-picking kit.

Pancreatic cancer [is] is the same disease that took the lives of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Shuttle astronaut Sally Ride, microprocessor pioneer Victor Poor, and “father of fractals” Benoit Mandelbrot.

With their own account, the family remembers—“Kevin David Mitnick”:

Rest in peace, Kev
Kevin was an original; much of his life reads like a fiction story. The word that most of us who knew him would use is magnificent. … He grew up brilliant and restless in the San Fernando Valley in California, an only child with a penchant for mischief, a defiant attitude toward authority, and a love for magic. … In time, he transitioned from pranks and learning magic tricks to phone phreaking, social engineering, and computer hacking.

In January 2000, he … began constructing a new career, as a White Hat hacker … global public speaker, a writer … and security consultant. … Self-educated and driven by eagerness, intense drive, immense curiosity, and seemingly endless energy … he set incredibly high standards for himself and those who worked with him. … Kevin’s body of work inspired many individuals to pursue a career in cybersecurity.

Kevin was a gentleman: well-mannered and respectful, astoundingly generous with those he loved. … Kevin had an irresistible way of converting foes to friends and keeping them as friends forever. … To know Kevin was to be enthralled, exasperated, amazed, amused, irritated, and utterly charmed – in equal measure. … Rest in peace, Kev, you are well loved and will be missed always.

There are so many stories. josh2600 has one:

Rest in Power
Mitnick had so many stories that entranced the people around him. I heard one … of Mitnick dealing with a bank who had early voice verification software. … He called the CEO and asked him to read his phone number. … The phone number contained all ten digits which Mitnick had neatly tape recorded.

He then proceeded to use the bank’s … system to transfer $1 from the CEO’s account to his. … When Mitnick arrived back in the board room the architect of the voice verification system was crestfallen and the bank CEO delivered a check on a silver platter. … Rest in Power.

“Free Kevin”? Orgasmatron has been around the block:

Sucks that he’s gone
I had a Free Kevin bumper sticker on my van for a very, very long time. … (For you old, old timers, this was the same van that my friends and I drove Patrick Volkerding around in when he was at the hospital, and host of what was quite possibly the first “car” MP3 player.)

Free Kevin wasn’t because we thought he had done nothing wrong or that he didn’t deserve punishment. It was a reaction to the barbaric conditions he was held in pre-trial. And to the sickening realization that most of us, should we fall into trouble with the law, could be treated the same way on the basis of tall tales spun by a prosecutor to an uncritical judge about our supposed abilities to turn movie plots into reality.

Sucks that he’s gone.

What else is “Free Kevin” about? @[email protected] digs deeper:

Kevin is free
It’s less the what and more the why: … His high profile arrest and sentencing highlighted the issues of a developing internet and the immediate backlash of institutional forces, both government and corporate, quickly rushing to shut down any and all discourse around information and knowledge being “free.”

This created an equal but opposite backlash against the perceived ignorance of the government at what the internet actually was, and the corporations that wanted to control and monetize it. … This helped propel an entire “hacker” subculture into pop culture and modern life.

“Free Kevin” … wasn’t about Kevin. It was … all of us. [It] became kind of synonymous with “Free Information.” … Kevin is free.

Speaking of free information, david 12 sees the irony:

There were large numbers placed on the value of the material he “stole” from the phone companies. The large numbers were largely imaginary. But it was somewhere between sad and funny that all API documentation, operation manuals, and source code was eventually released free, when AT&T realized that the secrecy had no commercial value.

Times have changed. And Kevin had a big part in changing them. ChuckMcM notes the downside of the conviction:

Pointing out security problems
I didn’t know Kevin, but am friends with Tsutomu Shimomura who worked with authorities to get him arrested. … It was fun to listen to his side of this story.

I was personally offended by how the story of Kevin painted every … ”hacker” as a criminal. … The 80’s was a really weird time … when what was then considered the “hacker” community schismed into what today we might call “white hat” vs “black hat” hackers.

I didn’t disagree with the importance of pointing out security problems, but the flamboyant way it was done scared the **** out of people who were both clueless and in a position to do stupid things. … The damage that did to curious people growing up lost the US a significant fraction of … talent.

What can we learn? u/ExcitingTabletop remembers:

I met Kevin couple times, usually in Vegas, as we had mutual friends. I didn’t always agree with him on some things … but he was a very nice guy who even when I disagreed with him, I knew he was coming from a good place. I try not to think of how many friends are now dead, and I don’t think I’m that old.

At Defcon one year, one of the speakers told us he was just diagnosed with terminal cancer and probably would be dead within six months. … It did influence young me to make sure I didn’t work myself to death. … Probably best presentation I ever attended.

In brief, Robert Walker—@[email protected]—summarizes:

Life is short. Hug a hacker you love at Defcon this year. And be good to each other. We all need more of that.

Meanwhile, sageres says a solemn BDE:

Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet — “Blessed be the Judge of Truth” is what we say.

And Finally:

Kevin tells the “FBI doughnuts” story

Previously in And Finally

You have been reading SB Blogwatch by Richi Jennings. Richi curates the best bloggy bits, finest forums, and weirdest websites … so you don’t have to. Hate mail may be directed to @RiCHi, @richij or [email protected]. Ask your doctor before reading. Your mileage may vary. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Do not stare into laser with remaining eye. E&OE. 30.

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Richi Jennings

Richi Jennings is a foolish independent industry analyst, editor, and content strategist. A former developer and marketer, he’s also written or edited for Computerworld, Microsoft, Cisco, Micro Focus, HashiCorp, Ferris Research, Osterman Research, Orthogonal Thinking, Native Trust, Elgan Media, Petri, Cyren, Agari, Webroot, HP, HPE, NetApp on Forbes and CIO.com. Bizarrely, his ridiculous work has even won awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors, ABM/Jesse H. Neal, and B2B Magazine.

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