USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





The Making of a 'Darkside Hacker'

This month, Miramax announced that Skeet Ulrich will play the part of Kevin Mitnick in the film version of John Markoff and Tsutomu Shimomura's book, 'Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnick, America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw -- By the Man Who Did It.' The book, which chronicles Mitnick's tracking and arrest, is wildly inaccurate and libelous, according to Mitnick himself.   The upcoming movie is the latest in a series of renderings of Mitnick that have been done without his permission, colored the public perception of him, and made him a clear target for law enforcement.   The first, and perhaps most destructive, portrayal of Mitnick occurred in 'Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier,' a book by Katie Hafner and John Markoff, published in 1995. In 'Cyberpunk,' Mitnick was portrayed as a 'darkside hacker' for the first time. The label stuck, leading USA Today to publish a picture of Mitnick's face superimposed over an image of Darth Vader.   Hafner, who was primarily responsible for the characterization of Mitnick as a darkside hacker, admitted to Charles Platt in his review of 'Takedown' that it 'might have been a mistake to call him a darkside hacker.' Hafner, in fact, has come to regret the characterization and its fallout. 'There are malicious characters out there,' she told Platt, 'but Kevin is not one of them... He has been turned into this bankable commodity. Leave the guy alone! He's had a really tragic life.'   Her mistake has had a profound and lasting effect on Mitnick's life. Unlike hackers who seek publicity and visibility, Mitnick has always sought to maintain a low profile, even refusing to talk with Hafner and Markoff while they were writing 'Cyberpunk.' As a result, Hafner and Markoff relied extensively on sources who portrayed Mitnick as a malicious, petty and evil person who tampered with celebrities' telephone lines, altered credit reports, and accessed and changed police files, accusations that Mitnick denies.   Two of the main sources for Hafner and Markoff's account were 'Susan' and 'Roscoe,' two of Mitnick's fellow hackers who, as Hafner and Markoff write, 'cooperated with us in the understanding that their true names would not be revealed.' In a final touch of irony, they end the book with the line, 'We respect their right to privacy.' One of the two, Roscoe, would later claim that much of the information he provided to Hafner and Markoff was intended to deceive them.   The most damning accusations against Mitnick were not his hacking exploits. What colored the perception of Mitnick most thoroughly were the little things, most of which, Mitnick claims, were untrue and used to 'spin' and to 'assign motive' to his actions. The one that seems to bother him most is the claim that he stole money from his mother's purse to further his hacking exploits, an incident that he refers to as absolute 'fiction.'   What has damned Mitnick in the eyes of both the public and law enforcement is not his hacking, but his personality. That characterization of Mitnick is built almost entirely on second-hand accounts from people who had either served as informants against him or had an investment in vilifying him to suit their own agendas. Turning Mitnick into the archetypal 'dark-side' computer hacker is a move that has benefited a number of agendas, most recently those of Markoff and Shimomura.   Markoff has kept the Mitnick story alive in the pages of the New York Times, where he has referred to Mitnick as 'Cyberspace's Most Wanted,' 'a computer programmer run amok,' and the 'Prince of Hackers.' Markoff also covered the break-in of Shimomura's system that spurred the manhunt that ultimately lead to Mitnick's arrest.   In the first story, Markoff described how Mitnick was eluding an F.B.I. manhunt (July 4, 1994); in the second, he detailed how Shimomura's computer system had been breached (January 28, 1995). Two weeks after reporting the break-in, Markoff wrote that federal authorities had suspected that the '31-year-old computer outlaw Kevin D. Mitnick is the person behind a recent spree of break-ins to hundreds of corporate, university and personal computers on the global Internet' (February 16, 1995).   From that point on, Markoff began telling the tale of the noble samurai warrior, Shimomura, versus the 'dark-side' hacker, Mitnick -- as if there were a Hollywood-esque battle of good versus evil. As Markoff later concluded in the Times, 'Mr. Mitnick is not a hacker in the original sense of the word. Mr. Shimomura is. And when their worlds collided, it was obvious which one of them had to win.'   Now we'll get to see the battle played out on the big screen, and once again, Mitnick will be offered up for sacrifice in a tale of good and evil that promises to both completely demonize Mitnick in the public's eyes and further enrich both Markoff and Shimomura (they were reportedly paid $750,000 for their book deal; I'm assuming the movie option pushes them well over the $1,000,000 mark).   The upcoming film will include a scene in which Mitnick is whistling touch tones into a phone receiver in order to make free phone calls (a technical and physical impossibility) and, most unbelievably, a scene in which Mitnick physically assaults Shimomura with a metal garbage can, leaving him 'dazed, [with] blood flowing freely from a gash above his ear.' The only difficulty with that part of the narrative is that Shimomura and Mitnick had never met, much less had a physical altercation, at that point in time. A more comprehensive list of factual errors, compiled by Emmanuel Goldstein, editor of 2600 magazine, can be found here.   As a pre-trial detainee, Mitnick has very few legal options available to him. If he were to pursue legal recourse by suing Markoff, Shimomura or Miramax for slander or libel, he could well find himself deposed, without Fifth Amendment rights, and be forced to answer questions which could later be used against him in his criminal trial.   With the script in Mitnick's attorney's hands, it remains to be seen what can be done to prevent the film from portraying Mitnick in ways which might further damage his reputation and his right to a fair trial. According to Greg Vincent, a member of Mitnick's defense team, it may be difficult to take legal action until after the damage has already been done.