The Mob isn’t what it used to be. Back in the days of Al Capone, newspapers around the country followed each gun battle or courtroom fight with stories that read something like a dime-store novel. Swimming in a sea of vice without regardor respectfor anyone, gangsters captured the spotlight and the imagination of the American public for years.
But not so anymorenow FBI agents are more likely to capture a mobsters with a shotgun microphone than with a shotgun. These days, high-tech stings capture Mafiosi on videotape as they essentially confess to their crimes. In Philadelphia, newspapers don’t tell of the glamorous gangster lifestyle anymore, but rather of the bungling and ineptitude of the city’s mob bosses. The glitter around the gangs is gone; the mob is just too easy to catch.
On the horizon, however, there’s a new type of criminal who can cover his tracks so well that only an army of FBI agents can capture him. Slipping in and out of highly protected security areas with ease, this criminal can literally steal million-dollar ideas from companies or highly classified information from governments. All the while, he remains so well hidden that his pursuers know him only by a nickname.
Does it sound like the old tales of the Prohibition-era Mafia to you? It should. Only this time, the criminal’s domain isn’t the bank, the bordello, or the speakeasyit’s his own computer. This new criminal is something the Federal Bureau of Investigation calls a “super-hacker,” and, according to the FBI, Kevin Mitnick is one of the first.
The FBI contends that the 33-year-old Mitnick, initially known only as “Condor,” carried out a three-year crime spree of software thefts that cost several companies millions of dollars. The agency has now officially indicted him on charges of software piracy. Already awaiting sentencing on an earlier charge of cellular phone fraud, Mitnick could face up to 200 years of jail time if convicted.
The story of the super-hacker’s capture does indeed sound like the old Mafia hunts of yore. Ever vigilant against being caught, the Condor simply made sure he never stayed in one place too long. Using cellular phones to attack computers from different places, he was able to lead police on a wild goose chase that frustrated many an agent.
For a while, Mitnick even delighted in the frustration he caused, occasionally sending messages to agents in which he teased them for not capturing him. Meanwhile, he continued to jump from place to place, finding new computers to infiltrate. For a while, it seemed as if there were more than one Teflon Don out there.
Unsure about how to combat this new type of crimecomputer-based crimes are a rather new conceptauthorities enlisted the help of computer security expert Tsutomu Shimomura. Playing Elliott Ness to Mitnick’s Capone, Shimomura used Mitnick’s own ego against him: He forced the hacker to taunt him so he could then trace the source of the transmission.
Mitnick was arrested in North Carolina within days, but since laws on the books regarding computer crime were sparse and incomplete, federal agents found they had precious little with which to charge Mitnick. Instead, they charged him with one count of cellular telephone fraud and violating his probation for a prior count of fraud.
Since then, laws have been enacted that give computer “hacking” a bit more notorietyand a heavier punishment. Because of these newer laws, the FBI has decided to charge Mitnick again to give the high-profile case more of an impact. “It’s a growing problem, and the Department of Justice is willing to go to extraordinary measures to combat the problem,” says assistant U.S. Attorney David Schindler.
Critics of the FBI charge that the agency is being unfair by charging a man under statutes that have only recently become law. They also point out that many of the companies that were infiltrated by Mitnick are claiming losses in excess of $1,000,000 when, in fact, those losses may not even exceed $1,000.
Much like the old rogue-hero image of Al Capone, Mitnick has become somewhat of a cult figure in the so-called computer “underground.” Some of the techniques that Mitnick used to elude capture are still workable, and they’ve been used by others since his arrest. At the same time, the FBI’s own hired gun has gone a bit Hollywood himself: Tsutomu Shimomura has cowritten a book about the capture and is reportedly considering several movie offers.
The case will be tried in federal court shortly. No matter the outcome, the FBI’s new breed of criminal is sure to become more of a problema problem that the agency claims it has under control. But as recent infiltrations into government computer systems have proventhe Department of Justice and the Central Intelligence Agency were both successfully attackedthe agency isn’t quite as untouchable as Elliott Ness was so many years ago.
Joel Moses can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.