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The story of the man who calls himself the “world’s most famous hacker” contains a moral: It’s often the human element, not the high-tech, that allows intrusion into the most secure of systems — and allows hackers to exist in our midst.

Until his arrest Feb. 15, 1995, in Raleigh, North Carolina, Kevin Mitnick was able to make the networks of some of the world’s largest companies his playground. With a few simple precautionary measures, he was able to elude arrest. Beginning in his high school days, Mitnick hacked into phone companies, stealing computer manuals from Pacific Bell. He tapped into the McDonald’s drive-thru, commandeering its sound system to harass customers. As an adult, he moved on to bigger targets, stealing source code for operating systems and amassing a collection of credit card numbers from millionaires.

Life as a professional hacker

Despite his mug being featured on an FBI Most Wanted poster, Mitnick hid in plain sight. He lost weight and walked with stones in his shoe to alter his gait. Going by the name “Erik Weisz” (a cheeky nod to Houdini’s birth name), Mitnick worked as a systems administrator in Denver and he later lived in Seattle as “Brian Merrill,” a medical center IT employee.

The feds finally caught up with him in Raleigh after he tapped into the network of someone who wouldn’t let up until they had tracked the hacker down. Research scientist Tsutomo Shimomura traced the intrusion on his computer to a cell tower in Raleigh and helped investigators find Mitnick at 2 a.m. when he logged on to the internet.

Mitnick pled guilty in 1999 to wire fraud, computer fraud, and illegally intercepting communications. He ultimately spent five years in prison. Upon his release, he began consulting on computer security, helping companies understand that the biggest threat to their network is the unsuspecting employee. System penetration is always just a click on an innocent-looking PDF away.

Photo: Daniel Tadevosyan / Shutterstock

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Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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