Kevin Mitnick, Famed U.S. Hacker Who Transformed Cybersecurity, Dies at 59

 

Kevin Mitnick, Famed U.S. Hacker Who Transformed Cybersecurity, Dies at 59


Las Vegas, July 21, 2023 — Kevin Mitnick, the legendary hacker known for his groundbreaking exploits in the 1980s and 1990s, has passed away at the age of 59 after a brave 14-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Mitnick's demise occurred while he served as Chief Hacking Officer at KnowBe4, a prominent security training firm, as confirmed by its CEO, Stu Sjouwerman.

Kevin Mitnick's journey from a curious student to an FBI-pursued fugitive, incarcerated felon, and ultimately a respected cybersecurity professional, public speaker, and author, exemplified society's evolving understanding of computer hacking nuances.

Sjouwerman mentioned that Mitnick was not primarily driven by financial gain; instead, he sought trophies, particularly cellphone code. In 1995, Mitnick's high-profile arrest, three years after violating probation on a prior computer break-in charge, garnered significant attention. The government accused him of causing considerable damages to corporations such as Motorola, Novell, Nokia, and Sun Microsystems by stealing software and altering computer code.

However, the prosecution encountered difficulties in gathering evidence of major crimes, leading to Mitnick reaching a plea agreement in 1999 that recognized the time he had already served. Upon his release from prison in January 2000, Mitnick described his actions as "simple crimes of trespass," driven by his curiosity about phone networks.

Mitnick's expertise lay in social engineering, where he would impersonate company employees to obtain passwords and sensitive data, a technique known as pretexting that remains effective in hacking and demands significant research to execute successfully.

Chris Wysopal, a member of the white-hat hacking group L0pht, praised Mitnick's ingenuity and the impact of his hacking activities. Mitnick himself acknowledged that his actions were motivated by a thirst for knowledge, intellectual challenge, thrill, and an escape from reality.

Mitnick's early life was marked by challenges, raised by his mother in a bleak Los Angeles suburb after his parents' divorce. He found solace among phone phreaks—teenagers who made free long-distance calls using stolen phone codes—which led him to computers and hacking. Although Mitnick was perceived as a threat, conversations with investigative journalist Jonathan Littman portrayed a picture of a fearful and disturbed young man, more annoying than vindictive.

Despite rumors of possessing 20,000 credit card numbers, Mitnick was never proven to have used any of them. His five-year prison sentence sparked a movement among hackers who believed it was excessive, with some defacing websites and demanding his release.

Mitnick authored "The Ghost in the Wires," a captivating account of his life as a wanted hacker, as well as three other books, including "The Art of Deception." Apart from his role at KnowBe4, Mitnick and his wife, Kimberley Barry, ran a separate penetration-testing business.

Kevin Mitnick's influence on the world of hacking and cybersecurity cannot be overstated, as he challenged systems, initiated discussions, and pushed boundaries. As the cybersecurity community mourns the loss of a true icon, Mitnick's legacy will forever be a testament to the power of curiosity and the transformative potential of knowledge.


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