Kevin Mitnick, hacker and fugitive turned security consultant, dies at 59
Home/Technology / Kevin Mitnick, hacker and fugitive turned security consultant, dies at 59
Kevin Mitnick, hacker and fugitive turned security consultant, dies at 59

Kevin Mitnick, a hacker who was the subject of a lengthy manhunt by the FBI in the 1990s that turned him into the nation’s most famous cybercriminal, but who later pivoted to a lucrative career as a cybersecurity consultant, died on July 16. He was 59.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said Kathy Wattman, a spokeswoman for KnowBe4, a security training company where Mr. Mitnick worked.

Mr. Mitnick branded himself the “world’s most famous hacker,” as KnowBe4 called him in a Thursday statement. As the World Wide Web was slowly being adopted across the globe, he broke into the computer systems of companies such as Motorola, Nokia and Sun Microsystems, causing what prosecutors alleged was millions of dollars in damage.

Before he was 30, Mr. Mitnick had already served a brief prison sentence for computer crimes. But his infamy as a hacker was cemented in 1995, when the FBI arrested him in the middle of the night at a North Carolina apartment in a highly publicized raid that capped a 24-hour stakeout outside his home and brought an end to his more than two years as a fugitive.

Law enforcement ultimately tracked him down with the help of Tsutomu Shimomura, a cybersecurity expert who said his computer had been hacked into by Mr. Mitnick. At a hearing after his arrest, Mr. Mitnick reportedly turned to Shimomura and told him he respected his skills.

In 1999, Mr. Mitnick pleaded guilty to several counts of wire fraud and other cybercrimes. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Upon his release in 2000, taking into account time already served in detention, he was prohibited from using the internet without government authorization, a right he won back only after a lengthy tussle with authorities.

After his release, Mr. Mitnick became a polarizing but regular presence in the cybersecurity community. He portrayed himself as a misunderstood “genius” and pioneer, and some supporters said he was a victim of overzealous prosecution and overhyped media coverage. Fans staged protests across more than a dozen cities when he was sentenced and adorned their cars with yellow “Free Kevin” bumper stickers after his arrest.

A group calling for his release shut down the New York Times’ website for several hours in 1998, plastering pornographic photos of women on its homepage.

The U.S. Justice Department called him a “computer terrorist” and critics said he tarnished the reputation of professionals in a nascent internet industry.

It was not clear if Mr. Mitnick made significant financial gains from cybercrime, though he had the opportunity to do so. “My motivation was a quest for knowledge, the intellectual challenge, the thrill and the escape from reality,” he told a Senate committee hearing several months after he was freed from incarceration.

The 2000 movie “Track Down,” starring Skeet Ulrich as Mr. Mitnick, known by the title “Takedown” outside the United States, was based on his life story. It drew from a 1996 book by Shimomura and Times reporter John Markoff that recounted Mr. Mitnick’s crime spree involving stolen credit card numbers and corporate trade secrets. (Mr. Mitnick said he did not approve of the book.)

Most of his hacking in the 1990s relied heavily on social engineering — the act of tricking people into revealing confidential information — while others did much of the technical work for him.

Kevin David Mitnick was born on Aug. 6, 1963. A childhood tinkerer who grew up in Los Angeles, Mr. Mitnick wrote in the Register, a U.K. tech publication, that he spent his youth chronically bored, manipulating bus tickets so he could ride around the city for free and performing magic tricks that helped him discover “enjoyment in fooling people.”

He broke into a North American Air Defense Command computer as a teenager, and began to appear on the radar of federal law enforcement agencies in his 20s.

At the time of his arrest, much of the world was still acclimatizing to the internet, and the public perception of hackers was changing from college professors and researchers to the likes of thieves, fraudsters and an emerging scene of internet activists.

In this new landscape, ethical boundaries were often blurred, said Mark Rasch, a former federal computer crime prosecutor who investigated Mr. Mitnick. Mr. Mitnick’s crimes at times exposed ambiguities in the law, he said.

“He became a cause célèbre for the internet. There was this idea that he was liberating data, he was liberating information, and that he was just proving how hacking could be done,” he said. “You had a whole bunch of people in the hacker defense community who thought he was the worst thing in the world, and people in the hacker community who thought he was a demigod.”

Mr. Mitnick was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in mid-2022. Survivors include his wife, Kimberley, who is expecting a child later this year.

Rasch — who later spoke on the same cybersecurity panels as Mr. Mitnick and helped his former suspect to the hospital when he was ill — believed that Mr. Mitnick’s sentence was fair and that he “knew what he was doing was wrong.”

But “there are genuinely bad people, genuinely evil people, genuinely dangerous on the web right now,” he said. “I would not put Kevin Mitnick in that category.”

Joseph Menn contributed to this report.

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