In “techie’’ circles, Kevin D. Mitnick became the underground icon of computer hackers. During a decade’s reign, Mitnick terrorized the federal government, universities, and high-tech companies such as Sun Microsystems, Novell Corporation, MCI Communications, and Digital Equipment Corporation by breaking into their computer systems. Mitnick used his computer skills to penetrate his victims’ computer systems to steal secret information and wreak havoc with their software and data.
Mitnick, a self-taught computer user, has a history of computer-related crime. As a 17-year-old, he was placed on probation for stealing computer manuals from a Pacific Bell Telephone switching center in Los Angeles. Mitnick was next accused of breaking into federal government and military computers. He has also been accused of breaking into the nation’s telephone and cellular telephone networks, stealing thousands of data files and trade secrets from corporate targets, obtaining at least 20,000 credit card numbers of some of the country’s richest persons, and sabotaging government, university, and private computer systems around the nation. Mitnick was arrested and convicted of computer crimes and served time in prison. Upon release from prison, he was put on probation and placed in a medical program to treat his compulsive addiction to computers, which included a court order to not touch a computer or modem. Mitnick dropped out of sight and evaded federal law enforcement officials for several years, as he continued a life of computer crime. Mitnick’s next undoing came when he broke into the computer of Tsutomu Shimomura, a researcher at the San Diego Supercomputer Center.
Shimomura, a cyber sleuth who advises the FBI and major companies on computer and Internet security, made it his crusade to catch the hacker who broke into his computer. Shimomura watched electronically as Mitnick invaded other computers across the country, but he could not physically locate Mitnick because he disguised his whereabouts by breaking into telephone company computers and rerouting all his computer calls. Eventually, Shimomura’s patient watching paid off, as he traced the electronic burglar to Raleigh, North Carolina. Shimomura flew to Raleigh, where he used a cellular- frequency-direction-finding antenna to locate Mitnick’s apartment. The FBI was notified, and an arrest warrant was obtained from a judge at his home. The FBI arrested Mitnick at his apartment. Mitnick was placed in jail without bail, pending the investigation of his case. Mitnick’s computer crimes spree has been estimated to have cost his victims several hundreds of millions of dollars in losses, but Mitnick was not accused of benefiting financially from his deeds. Mitnick entered into a plea agreement with federal prosecutors. The U.S. District Court judge sentenced Kevin Mitnick to 46 months in prison, including time served, and ordered him to pay $4,125 in restitution to the companies he victimized. The judge called this a token amount but did not order a larger restitution because she believed Mitnick would not be able to pay more. After serving his time in prison, Mitnick was released. As part of the sentencing, Mitnick cannot use electronic devices, from PCs to cellular telephones, during an additional probationary period following his release from prison. Mitnick is now acting as a consultant to businesses, advising them how to protect themselves from computer hackers.
1. Was Mitnick guilty of a crime?
2. Did Mitnick act unethically? Do you think hackers cause much economic loss?
3. Should Mitnick have been given a greater sentence in this case? Why or why not? Do you think anything should have been done differently in sentencing?
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