Geek Trivia: Hollywood hack job

On what television show was the notorious cybercriminal Kevin Mitnick cast as a government-employed white-hat hacker, despite the fact that his probation ostensibly required the show's prop department to mock up a dummy computer because Mitnick wasn't allowed near a real one?

If someone asks the average person to compile a list of notorious hackers from history, odds are the first name they'd come up is "that kid from WarGames." When someone explains that WarGames was just a movie, the average Joe would probably do a Google search and come up with an almost as infamous — and decidedly non-fictional — individual: Kevin Mitnick.

After all, if one were to factor in all the cybercrimes Mitnick is alleged to have perpetrated, you could make a case that he was the inspiration for the kid from WarGames...and the entire cast of Hackers. Legend holds that Mitnick broke into the NORAD mainframe and gained enough knowledge to use his phreaker (telecom hacking) skills to launch nuclear missiles simply by whistling into a pay phone. That's after he wiretapped the FBI, electronically altered a judge's credit report, and harassed actress Kristy McNichol.

Of course, there's little actual evidence that Mitnick accomplished many of those highly implausible feats — despite some New York Times reporting and conjecture to the contrary. That's why Mitnick was only convicted of hacking into and stealing source code from DEC, breaching cybersecurity at a half-dozen other major corporations (IBM, NEC, Nokia, Motorola, Sun, and Fujitsu Siemens), and evading FBI arrest for a few years. Serious crimes, but not exactly equal to placing a collect call to atomic Armageddon.

Mitnick spent five years in prison, though all but eight months of that was pre-trial, leading many in the hacker community to conclude that his punishment was disproportionate to his crimes. The contrary argument is that Mitnick managed to avoid prosecution for many of his actual misdeeds, but his flagrant flouting of the law and status as a long-term celebrity fugitive required that the government maximize his punishment.

Part of that punishment included a rather unusual post-parole probationary stipulation that Mitnick have no access to any communications equipment short of a conventional landline telephone. Though that stipulation eventually was reversed on appeal, it ostensibly led to a rather unusual Hollywood moment for Mitnick. You see, in an ironic twist for so "inspirational" a cybercriminal, Mitnick was cast as a government white-hat hacker on a popular television show — but supposedly had to use a dummy computer for his scenes, because his probation prevented his use of a real one.


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Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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