Hacker for the Hell of It: The Adventures of Kevin Mitnick

At the time of his arrest by the FBI in 1995, Kevin Mitnick was the most wanted hacker in America. Today Kevin continues his hacking adventures legally, as a computer security expert.

At the time of his arrest by the FBI in 1995, Kevin Mitnick was the most wanted hacker in America. The press (misleadingly) likened him to Darth Vader. It was widely believed that he could start a nuclear war simply by whistling into a telephone. His crime? Compromising computer systems, telephone networks, and databases across the nation, as well as eluding the FBI for two years under false identities – mainly for the fun of it. 


That's right. In spite of having easy access  to credit cards, social security numbers, and proprietary software, Mitnick never spent a dime of other people's money. Never stole any living person’s identity. Never pirated a line of code. His motive – his addiction – was curiosity. And it got him into a LOT of trouble.

Mitnick got an early start. By the age of 12, he was adept at "social engineering," which is to human beings as hacking is to computers. You find their vulnerabilities – trust, mainly – and exploit them.

The pre-teen Mitnick was precociously articulate and relaxed around adults. He social-engineered a Los Angeles area bus driver, telling him he needed a special hole punch for a school project. The driver helpfully directed him to the public transportation supply store, where he could buy the kind of punch the driver used for transfer passes. 15 bucks from his mom for the punch, a little dumpster-diving at the bus depot for unused transfers, and Mitnick was able to ride the LA bus system anytime, for free.

In the years that followed, Kevin applied his social engineering skills to "phone phreaking" - the telephonic predecessor to computer hacking. By doing careful research, learning insider jargon, and impersonating phone company personnel, he was able to get codes and top-secret phone numbers that enabled him to tap phone lines, access unlisted phone numbers, and make free long distance calls. He got employees to place and disable wiretaps. At some point he had control of the entire Pacific Bell network.

Kevin Mitnick: One of the things I did to build a person’s perception over the phone that I was a legit telco employee is they had advertisements for Pacific Telephone when you would be on hold. I recorded these advertisements and I created a looped tape. So, whenever I would call the internal phone company office I would find a reason, “oh, I have another call, let me put you on hold.”  I’d let them hear their own advertisements, right, so subliminally that built trust and credibility that I was one of the in group. Once you’re part of the “in group” then you get cooperation. You get compliance.

In 1993, realizing he was being investigated for alleged break-ins at Pacific Bell, Kevin began wiretapping the agents on his case. He set up an early warning system that alerted him to impending raids. When they arrived at his evidence-free apartment, agents found that Kevin had thoughtfully left them a box of labeled “FBI Donuts.”

But the case against Kevin was strong. It was time to get the hell out of Dodge. Using identity-changing skills he had acquired reading underground spy manuals as a high school kid, he relocated to Colorado under a new name. Two years and several states (and identities) later, the FBI finally caught up with him, and Kevin spent five years in prison. A popular movement, endorsed by Kevin’s friend Steve Wozniak (the co-founder of Apple Computers, who, along with Steve Jobs, was also into phone-phreaking as a lad), distributed “Free Kevin” bumperstickers across the country.


Today Kevin continues his hacking adventures legally, as a computer security expert. He has a very cool business card, which is a snap-out, stainless steel lock pick set. He is also the author of Ghost in the Wires, a book about his exploits.

Kevin Mitnick: When the FBI, US Marshall Service and Secret Service were chasing me, it was an adventure. It was this huge cat and mouse game and I never wanted to treat it like I had to be afraid, looking over my shoulder, because that’s not the life I wanted to live. So basically I was very meticulous and I had a strategy where I would get legitimate government issued identification and then I’d go get jobs.
 
I had a job working in one of the top law firms in Denver, Colorado for over a year. I worked at a hospital in Seattle. So I felt very comfortable that I would not be detected and I was so into creating my cover that when I would walk into supermarkets for example and someone would say “Hey, Kevin!” I wouldn’t even turn around. I would consciously hear it, but I had trained myself that if someone called my real name I would not turn around.

Why did I choose the identity of Eric Weiss? Because that is the name of my idol, my favorite magician in the whole world, Harry Houdini, so I thought I would have a sense of humor by creating a new identity in the name of Eric Weiss.

Much later I learned that the FBI had no sense of humor, but that’s another story.

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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