Career Paths: Notorious Criminal or Security Consultant?

The same basic impulses – insatiable curiosity, good people skills, an appetite for risk – that led Kevin Mitnick into a decade-long game of cat-and-mouse with the FBI are richly rewarded in more prosocial professions.

Interviewer: If you hadn’t found the theater, what do you think you might have been?  

David Mamet: I think it’s very likely I would have been a criminal. It seems to me to be another profession that subsumes outsiders, or perhaps more to the point, accepts people with a not very well-formed ego and rewards the ability to improvise.  

                                                                                – THE PARIS REVIEW

What’s the Big Idea? 

In this clip from our recent interview, legendary hacker-turned-security consultant Kevin Mitnick recalls an incident back in 1981 when he was seventeen: He and a phone-phreaker buddy decide to sneak into Pacific Telephone’s central office in Hollywood. They social-engineer the key code and stroll in nonchalantly. Almost immediately, a security guard catches them. Typically this kind of story ends with a weeping phone call to Mom. But Kevin Mitnick was not your typical seventeen-year-old . . .

What Mitnick’s high school counselor should have told him
Kid, you got a bucketful of moxie. Cojones of steel and a silver tongue to match! Also, your ethics are a little bit on the fuzzy side. You could be . . . the greatest trial lawyer ever! 
That might have spared Kevin the five years of jail time between his first career as the most notorious phone phreaker and computer hacker in America and his second, more socially acceptable one as a computer security expert. Still, he wouldn’t have all those great stories to tell . . .
What’s the Significance?

The same basic impulses – insatiable curiosity, good people skills, an appetite for risk – that led Mitnick into a decade-long game of cat-and-mouse with the FBI are richly rewarded in more prosocial professions: sales, day-trading, acting, trial law . . . though none of those listed quite ratchets up the danger and intrigue to the levels young Kevin was addicted to.

Significantly, while he undeniably broke the law in infiltrating databases and downloading proprietary software, Kevin did it entirely for the kicks. He never sold anything he “stole.” In this sense, you could argue that he was doing businesses and the computer industry a favor. Like the recent exploits of Lulzsec, Kevin’s breaches heightened computer security nationwide – made companies savvier about protecting themselves from more malicious and destructive hackers.

The success of Mitnick Security, Kevin’s consulting company, is an almost literary example of the fine line between the light and dark side of the law. His reputation as a notorious hacker is a major selling point for this legitimate business. As a security consultant, Kevin is authorized to hack into his clients’ computer systems, exposing and exploiting vulnerabilities so they can be remedied.

For Kevin, this must be something like methodone for a heroin addict – a poor, if safer, substitute. It sates the curiosity, but not the appetite for danger. Still, with his new book Ghost in the Wires on the New York Times Bestseller list and a recent appearance on The Colbert Report, Kevin’s got a whole new (and legal) world of adventure opening up before him. And much better retirement prospects.
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