It's hardly an exaggeration to say that Mitnick has been preparing his whole life for the work he does now, albeit in a somewhat unusual way. It all started with a fascination with magic. "On weekends, I would just hang out at the magic store because I wanted to learn how to do illusions, and I wanted to learn the secrets about how they worked," says Mitnick, who spent his childhood in various locales around Southern California.
As Mitnick got older, he became interested first in CB radio and later in telephone systems. With telephones, he found a less traditional but certainly effective way to perform magic. By learning how telephone switching systems work, Mitnick pulled off some pretty ingenious pranks: He rigged it so that whenever a friend's family would pick up their home phone, it would ask them to deposit 10 cents; later, he learned how to intercept calls placed to Rhode Island's directory assistance.
Mitnick was first introduced to computers when telephone companies began using them as their front ends. It wasn't long before he became a full-fledged hacker. To hear Mitnick describe it, computer systems at big companies gave him the opportunity to be the ultimate magician. "Houdini was the best at breaking out of jail cells and handcuffs. I wanted to be the best at picking the lock," he says. The reason for his ventures into corporate operating systems, Mitnick insists, was never personal enrichment; it was just to get better at breaking in. "The goal was not to steal the software to develop a competing company or to sell it or to use it for profit. It was more of a cheat sheet for a game, to use it to become better at getting in."
Law enforcement officials didn't see it so benignly, though, and Mitnick was caught in 1988 and sent to prison for a year on a computer-fraud charge. Prosecutors alleged that Mitnick could somehow start a nuclear war by hacking into the NORAD computer system and whistling into the phone - a charge Mitnick calls laughable - so he wasn't allowed to use the prison telephone, and he was placed in solitary confinement. After he was released, Mitnick learned that the government was planning to charge him with supervised-release violations, so he fled.
Mitnick managed to elude his pursuers for three years. He moved across the country - sometimes under the alias Eric Weiss, a variation on Houdini's real name - and chose his new homes based on Money's rankings of the best places to live. Eventually, he was caught in North Carolina, where he copped a plea deal and was put back in prison for five years, from 1995 to 2000.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Mitnick admitted that he broke into computer systems and stole proprietary software. As part of his scheme, the Department of Justice said in its news release announcing the plea deal, Mitnick acknowledged that he tampered with college computer systems, stole e-mails, monitored computer systems, and tried to obtain software by posing as a company employee. The Department of Justice said the victims of Mitnick's hacking lost millions of dollars in damages from lost licensing fees, marketing delays, lost research and development, and repairs made to compromised computer systems.