Famed hacker Kevin Mitnick was 12 years old when he realized he could talk his way to glory and free bus rides.
Mitnick figured out he could ride for free if he found a way to punch his own transfer. He conned a bus driver into telling him where to buy a punch, dug a packet of blank transfers out of a dumpster, and presto – free rides.
That story appears in Mitnick's new memoir, Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker.
Those free bus rides were the beginning of a career in trickery that eventually landed Mitnick in federal prison for hacking into scores of big phone and tech companies.
But Mitnick tells weekends on All Things Considered host Laura Sullivan that he was never interested in money or power. "My motivation for hacking was all about the intellectual challenge, the seduction of adventure, and, most importantly, the pursuit of knowledge," he says. "I just wanted to learn everything there was."
Computer wizardry plays a huge role in Mitnick's story. But even more important is what he calls "social engineering" — posing as a trusted figure to con someone out of important information. "Like giving out a password," Mitnick says.
Yet Mitnick says he prefers to social-engineer people into doing things for him, like when he had the wiretaps on his father's phone lines checked. Or when he got an insider to copy the source code for a computer operating system onto a tape and mail it to him.
Mitnick's exploits got him into hot water over and over again, putting immense strain on his family and his marriage. But he just couldn't stop hacking. "It was kind of an addiction," he says. "It was a passion, and an addiction, and I just loved doing it."
He researched his targets ahead of time so he could sound convincing by "using the correct terminology and lingo that they expected," he says, "and just sounding like one of the in group."
These days, Mitnick is still hacking, but with the official approval of the companies he targets. "I have clients all around the world that hire me to break in, and I get the same type of endorphin rush, and I have the same type of enjoyment that I experienced when I was a hacker."
LAURA SULLIVAN, Host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan.
Kevin Mitnick was 12 years old when he realized he could talk his way to glory or at least free bus rides.
KEVIN MITNICK: One day, it occurred to me. If I could punch my own transfers, the bus rides wouldn't cost anything. I walked to the front of the bus and sat down in the closest seat to the driver. When he stopped at a light, I said: I'm working on a school project and I need to punch interesting shapes on pieces of cardboard. The punch you use on the transfers would be great for me. Is there someplace I could buy one?
SULLIVAN: Kevin Mitnick did buy one of those punches. It was the first step in a career in trickery that would eventually land him in federal prison for hacking into the computers of several big phone and tech companies. He tells that story and many more in a new memoir, "Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker." Kevin Mitnick joins me now from our New York bureau. Thanks for coming in.
MITNICK: Thank you for having me on your show.
SULLIVAN: Let's clear up some myths about you right away. You never tried to hack into Kristy McNichol's, the TV actress', phone?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MITNICK: That was crazy, because in that story - the first time I found out about it is I was in the supermarket and actually had one of those tabloids. And I was like in the front page of this tabloid: "Obsessed Stalker Hacker is Stalking Kristy McNichol," and it's my photo, right? And I'm going, oh, my god, you know? And I'm reading this story, and I just couldn't believe that this tabloid would just take a story, invent it out of whole cloth and put it on the newsstands. I was just shocked and appalled.
SULLIVAN: So let's talk about some of the things that you did do. After you figured out how to get free bus rides all over the city, you began hacking into the phone company. What was it about the phone company that you were so fascinated with?
MITNICK: Well, when I was in high school, I met this student who could kind of work magic with the telephone. And as a young boy, I was fascinated with magic. And he could do all these sorts of tricks, like, he can call a secret number and put in a secret code and he can call anywhere in the world. Where he would call, he would call, like, Australia and listen to the time, and he could, like, get my mom's non-published number.
And all this stuff he was doing, I was thinking, ooh, I could do the same stuff but make it like a magic trick. So then I became involved in phone freaking, it was called. It was like the predecessor to hacking. And then as the phone companies started evolving in their technology and becoming more computerized, I became involved in hacking the phone company.
SULLIVAN: And was it the power that the telephone company had?
MITNICK: It wasn't really about the power. I would say it was a lot more about the exploration, and then the ability to do things, to pull practical jokes. You know, it's like calling the bowling alley and asking them, well, do you have 10 pound balls? You know, well, how do you walk around? You know, so it's the type of, you know, juvenile type of pranks that I loved to pull by having the ability to get into telephone companies' network.
SULLIVAN: It was like solving a puzzle.
MITNICK: Exactly. And I loved figuring my way around obstacles. And later in life, I would intentionally put myself in dangerous situations, like running from the government, because at one point, I was a fugitive. I'd intentionally put myself in these dangerous positions and then try to figure out how to get out of it. It became like a game to me, but unfortunately, with real consequences.
SULLIVAN: We're talking with Kevin Mitnick. He wrote the book "Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker." Throughout the whole book, there's a lot of computer wizardry. There's a lot of telephone wizardry. But a lot of it is just plain old conning your way into getting information out of people's minds. You call this social engineering throughout the book. What is this?
MITNICK: Well, social engineering is using manipulation, deception and influence tactics to get somebody to comply with a request.
SULLIVAN: Like what?
MITNICK: Like giving out a password, for example, even though I rarely use that form of social engineering. It was usually to get somebody to do some sort of action item. Go ahead, Sally. And I need - we installed a new upgrade to the password changing program and I need you to test it. And then I'd have the target change her password to something I knew. Like, oh, yeah. Just for the test, let's change your password to test 1, 2, 3, 4.
And by the way, do not give me your old password. And I'd lecture the person on security guidelines that you should never, ever give out your password. I'd have them change it to something that I suggested, and then I'd have them test their applications. And when they were testing everything, I was already into that person's account.
SULLIVAN: How did you get them to do this?
MITNICK: By just pretending to be from the IT department and sounding - using the correct terminology and lingo that they expected and just sounding like one of the in group.
SULLIVAN: What is some of the information that you were able to obtain over the years? I mean, a lot of people - you really scare a lot of people with your abilities. And what were some of the things that freaked them out the most?
MITNICK: I think one of the, maybe incidents that, you know, freaked out government investigators is when I hacked into a cellular phone provider in Los Angeles, and I was tracking the FBI's movements. At the time, the FBI was chasing me, so by hacking into PacTel Cellular, I was able to get access to the call detail records and find out who was calling the government agents and who were they calling, what were their physical locations, to try to get a sense of what they knew about me and what their next move was.
SULLIVAN: That is a little bit scary. I mean, for you, it was a game of cat and mouse, but for FBI agents whose, you know, lives are on the line against drug cartels or violent criminals, having that information out there could be very dangerous to them.
MITNICK: Well, I guess it's fortunate that I wasn't a violent criminal or drug dealer. I was a non-violent hacker, and I would have never passed this information to anybody else. I basically used it to try to evade them. It wasn't aggressive in any means of the word.
SULLIVAN: I mean, in all the hot water that you've gotten in over the years, I mean, you spent so much time on the run and you spent years in prison, you kept doing it even though you kept getting caught.
MITNICK: Well, the only thing I could think of is - it was just - you know, it was a kind of an addiction. You know, it was a passion and an addiction. And I just loved doing it, and it's what I knew.
SULLIVAN: One of the things that really jumped out in the book is that, you know, throughout this process, you never really used any of these techniques to make any money.
MITNICK: Exactly. I mean, my motivation for, you know, hacking was all about the intellectual challenge, the seduction of adventure, and most importantly, the pursuit of knowledge. I just wanted to learn everything there was. The hacker ethic is you never try to make money from it and you never try to harm or destroy.
SULLIVAN: That's the hacker ethic?
MITNICK: Well, that was at my time, you know, during my - the old school. Nowadays, that trend has changed where now we hear about hacking targeting credit card numbers, bank accounts, identity theft, organized crime leveraging hacking skills to do their dirty deeds. Back in my day, you know, there was the hacker ethic. It was all about learning, exploring and adventure.
SULLIVAN: Do you miss doing it, sort of illegally?
MITNICK: No. I mean, I do it today. You know, I break into systems all the time, but I do it with authorization. So I have clients all around the world that, you know, hire me to break in and I get the same type of endorphin rush and I have the same type of enjoyment that I experienced when I was a hacker.
SULLIVAN: Hacker turned computer security expert Kevin Mitnick. His new book is "Ghost in the Wires." Thanks, Kevin, so much for coming in.
MITNICK: Hey, thank you. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.