Free Radical

Superhacker Kevin Mitnick: Menace to Fear or Rogue to Love?

By 1996, the heavy-handed actions of the criminal justice system finally gave rise to the "Free Kevin Mitnick" movement, turning this not particularly popular denizen of the computer underground into a martyr and a hero.

The question needs to be asked: Given Mitnick's long criminal rap sheet, was the portrayal of him as a psychopathic cyberterrorist justified? Apparently, the media no longer thinks so. Almost as if they were celebrating his upcoming release, the media suddenly started reconsidering Mitnick in 1999. An influential May 1999 Wired Newsarticle challenged the claim made by various software companies like Nokia and Sun Microsystems that Mitnick's theft of their proprietary software cost them $300 million. Aside from revealing that none of the companies had reported the losses to the IRS or to shareholders, the article raised what should have been the obvious point all along. Kevin Mitnick hadn't stolen software from these companies, in the sense that if this author stole your copy of the Voice,you'd no longer have it. He merely "accessed" proprietary information. He downloaded it. The companies still had their copies. As one cyber-lawyer has famously argued, "The victim companies haven't been deprived of its use or its value."

Mitnick didn't steal the software to sell it to the company's competitors either. He was merely guilty of hacker original sins—curiosity and showing off. On April 19, 1999, that paragon of conservative business sense, Forbes magazine, issued strong words rehabilitating Mitnick's reputation. In the opinion piece, titled "The Demonizing of a Hacker," Forbes tech reporter Adam L. Penenberg wrote, "Is Mitnick a cyberterrorist? Will throwing the book at him make our databases safer? The answer to these questions is no. Mitnick's crimes were curiously innocuous. He broke into corporate computers, but no evidence indicates that he destroyed data. Or sold anything he copied. . . . The sum and substance of his criminal career was not like a string of bank robberies. It was more like a string of arrests for throwing cream pies in the mayor's face."

The freshly released Mitnick was just given reasonably sympathetic treatment by 60 Minutes, and reportedly will be writing a piece for Time. And although he is apparently attempting to live with the terms of his parole—he's not supposed to use a computer for three years, something that pretty much requires someone to live in a cave at this point—he's been treated as a homecoming hero by the computer underground. And now that the dramatic books have been written, the movie has gone into postproduction, and all the fury about Mitnick is dying down, supplanted by new hysteria over the recent crimes against e-commerce, what was it he actually did? He read some people's e-mail and he downloaded some proprietary software. And how sensational is that?

R.U. Sirius was the founder and editor in chief ofMondo 2000 from 1989-1993. He is currently Chairman of the Revolution at the-revolution.org.

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