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Hacker cries foul over FBI snooping

Burhan Wazir
Sunday October 21, 2001
The Observer

The world's most infamous computer hacker, out of jail and eking a living as an actor 
in a television drama, has denounced the new Patriot Act - which would allow FBI and 
police to snoop on emails and monitor US internet activity in their efforts to counter 
Kevin Mitnick, 38, imprisoned for breaking into the computer systems of America's 
leading telephone companies, told The Observer that the legislation proposed in the 
wake of the 11 September attacks was 'ludicrous'.

'Terrorists have proved that they are interested in total genocide, not subtle little 
hacks of the US infrastructure, yet the government wants a blank search warrant to spy 
and snoop on everyone's communications,' he said. Mitnick also warned that hackers 
risked inordinately heavy exemplary jail sentences. 'Trust me, you do not want to be 
the next big winner of the scapegoat sweepstakes.'

Mitnick says he was a scapegoat. He was arrested and charged with committing seven 
software felonies in 1995 and held without bail, sometimes in solitary confinement, 
until his conviction in 1999. Altogether he served four and a half years before being 
freed in January last year.

Under the terms of his release, he is banned until January 2003 from using a computer, 
finding employment as a technical consultant or even writing about computer technology 
without permission from his probation officer. He was only recently given approval to 
carry a mobile phone to keep in touch with family members following the death of his 
father five months ago. Faced with the restrictions, Mitnick has found work in an ABC 
spy drama, Alias, in which he plays a CIA computer expert.

Mitnick, whose career won him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the 
world's most notorious hacker, says he was a victim of circumstance. 'I am not 
innocent but I certainly didn't do most of what I was accused of,' he says. 'A hacker 
doesn't deliberately destroy data or profit from his activities. I never made any 
money directly from hacking. I wasn't malicious. A lot of the unethical things I did 
were to cover my own ass when I was a fugitive.'

He hacked into the email of New York Times reporter John Markoff, who was covering the 
FBI's pursuit of him.

Mitnick says: 'I read the emails because they were discussing how the FBI was going to 
catch me. I didn't read it all, just searched for a combination of letters that's in 
my name, and words like "trap", "trace" and things like that. Again, this is something 
I had to do to cover my ass, total self-preservation.' He and Markoff subsequently 
co-wrote a book about the case.

Having testified before a Senate committee on the dangers of politically motivated 
hackings, Mitnick continues to believe that the threat from cyberterrorism could 
easily be countered by strengthening security measures at government institutions and 
private corporations.

'Yes, a co-ordinated team of hackers could take down the communications systems, the 
power system, perhaps the financial markets,' he says. 'But all of those systems would 
be back online pretty quickly - you can't really knock them out for an extended 
period. You could use those outrages as a decoy though, to draw attention from what 
you are really planning.'

But, he warns, now is not the time to be hacking. He cites the case of Dmitry 
Skylarov, a Russian software programmer awaiting trial in the US on charges that he 
violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 'I hope Dmitry puts up a good fight. 
He's got a great lawyer, I had a public defender. He's innocent, whereas I wasn't


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