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?

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?

Mitnick appeared in the ABC spy drama Alias, created by J.J. Abrams, producer of Cloverfield and director of the upcoming Star Trek theatrical reboot. He portrayed CIA agent Burnett in the first-season episode, "Doppelganger," which first aired Oct. 28, 2001 -- just nine months after Mitnick's release from prison.

The casting of Mitnick was a conscious in-joke on the part of Alias's producers, though it's unclear how many viewers picked up on it. It was also a decidedly one-time affair, as Mitnick and his fellow CIA teammates are blown up at the close of the episode. (Resurrections from such fates are not beyond the ken of pulp television. Still, his character never reappeared before the series concluded in 2006.)

Besides his Alias work (and his apocryphal homage in WarGames), Mitnick has a rather direct connection to the 2000 film Takedown, as it is a fictionalized account of his capture by the FBI. Mitnick actively disputes many aspects of the film as inaccurate. A more sympathetic celluloid account of Mitnick can be found in the documentary Freedom Downtime, which follows the events surrounding -- and reactions to -- Mitnick's incarceration.

Though Mitnick has often decried his notoriety as cause for what he views as his unjust persecution, he has managed to parlay that same fame into a viable business. In a case of life imitating art, Mitnick -- who played a white hat on Alias -- is now a white hat security consultant, though one working for private enterprise rather than the government. Mitnick now uses his computer skills to audit cybersecurity systems for vulnerabilities (much like the characters in the hacker film Sneakers).

Mitnick has also written two books, The Art of Deception and The Art of Intrusion, which describe the tactics of, and defenses against, hacking and social engineering schemes. Still, even the best experts aren't invincible, as a few years ago Mitnick had his identity stolen and used to procure a cell phone account, which then ran up a $400 bill. "The hacker gets hacked" isn't just some clever irony -- it's some phreakishly funny Geek Trivia.

Quibble of the week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best quibble from our assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the Feb. 20, 2008 Geek Trivia, "Quite a tail to tell." Member RealGem nailed me for being overzealous in my use of dinosaur synonyms:

"I just wanted to offer a small objection to your use of the term thunder lizard. The word dinosaur actually means 'terrible lizard' and covers all dinosaurs. Thunder lizard is a literal translation of Brontosaurus, and just refers to the one genus. And, the term Brontosaurus has fallen out of favour, deprecated even, and is now just called Apatosaurus."

Right on both counts, dear reader. Thanks for the paleontology post script, and keep those quibbles coming.

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