Kevin Mitnick wasn't a typical nice Jewish boy when his teen pranks sent him to juvenile detention and eventually to jail. Now he's a security consultant who gets paid to hack.
The United States-based security consultant for large firms spoke to the Goldstein on Gelt show with Douglas Goldstein on Arutz Sheva - Israel National Radio's streaming audio and podcast site. Mitnick's latest book is the autobiographical Ghost in the Wires, which describes how he evaded an FBI manhunt after being accused of various computer crimes.
In the book, released in 2011, Mitnick briefly describes his bar mitzvah and secular Jewish upbringing in California. He praises his parents and grandmother who visited him in prison after becoming one of the first people in the world to be arrested for hacking in 1995.
Some newspaper articles say that when requested, Mitnick was denied kosher food by prison authorities. Wired Magazine interviewed his prison rabbi in 1999, who said Mitnick could opt for vegetarian meals, although they were not certified kosher.
There were also false rumors that Mitnick had fled to Israel to escape prison. He spent a brief period of time in a halfway house called Beit T'shuva in Los Angeles.
Today Mitnick is a respected lecturer and author on the subject he knows best, how to break into computer systems.
In July of 2012 he was named a director of the Israeli start-up company Zimperium which deals with network security.
Show host Douglas Goldstein talked to Mitnick about his past and his present-day advice on how one can keep safe on-line.
Mitnick reminisced on what he calls his favorite hack which occurred when he was a teenager.
"I worked out was how I could take over the McDonald's drive-up window using a ham radio, so when the customers would drive up to make an order, they would get me rather than the guy inside," Mitnick says of the incident, which happened several decades ago.
"When people would drive up," Mitnick related, "I would take their order instead and say, 'You’re the 100th customer today! Please drive forward - your order’s free!'"
"People got so crazy, that the manager of the McDonald's went out to the parking lot, walked up to the speaker of the drive-up window and actually peered inside, as if there was someone hiding inside. So I keyed on the mic and said, 'What are you looking at?!' He must have jumped back about 10 feet," Mitnick said.
But not all of Mitnick's hacks were merely thrill-seeking pranks. Although he never profited from his shenanigans, he spent serious time in jail.
"I actually spent a year in solitary confinement," Mitnick stated. "In my first appearance in court I was expecting to get bailed. But the prosecutor started telling the judge, 'We have to make sure Mr. Mitnick is held without bail. We have to make sure he can’t get access to a telephone because if Mr. Mitnick has access to a prison payphone, he could dial into NORAD and he could whistle the launch codes and possibly cause a nuclear strike.' I started laughing in court because it was so preposterous. This was in about 1988," Mitnick related.
But Mitnick's skills are not just technical. He also teaches others how to be wary of what he calls "social engineering." He described how he used to call up companies pretending to be from tech support and simply ask the unsuspecting employees for codes and passwords. Although Mitnick only pulled his hacks for fun, he warns that unethical hackers could be looking for more.
"Somebody could send you an office document or a PDF file, and as soon as you open it, it’s a booby trap and the hacker has complete control of your computer," warns Mitnick. "Another major problem is password management. People use the same password on multiple sites, so when the hacker compromises one site, they have your password for everywhere else."
He also advises using VPN, or virtual private networking. "If you go to a coffee shop or at the airport, and you’re using open wireless, I would use a VPN service that you could subscribe for 10 bucks a month. Everything is encrypted in an encryption tunnel, so a hacker cannot tamper with your connection."
Douglas Goldstein is a financial planner with Profile Investments based in Jerusalem, Israel. The Goldstein on Gelt show airs every Monday and is archived as a free podcast on Arutz Sheva - Israel National Radio's web site. For archives click here.