Kevin Mitnick was no hacker

Legendary phone phreaker says he rarely touched a keyboard

Those who picture hacker legend Kevin Mitnick seated before a computer tirelessly reverse-engineering operating system code and exhaustively probing remote networks for weaknesses have got the wrong idea. "The human side of computer security is easily exploited and constantly overlooked," Mitnick explained in testimony before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday. "Companies spend millions of dollars on firewalls, encryption and secure access devices, and it's money wasted because none of these measures address the weakest link in the security chain: the people who use, administer and account for computer systems that contain protected information." Mitnick detailed for the Committee how easily he breached security at the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration, simply by hacking humans instead of boxes. "I called employees within these agencies and used social engineering to obtain the name of the target computer system and the commands used by agency employees to obtain protected taxpayer information," he explained. "Once I was familiar with the agency's lingo, I was able to successfully social engineer other employees into issuing the commands required to obtain information from it, using as a pretext the idea that I was a fellow employee having computer problems." "I obtained confidential information in the same way government employees did, and I did it all without even touching a computer.....I was so successful with this line of attack that I rarely had to go towards a technical attack." Government employees with access to protected information are being manipulated with social engineering exploits every day, despite all of the current policies, procedures, guidelines and standards already in place, Mitnick said. By way of remedy, Mitnick suggested making an industrial training film that would "demonstrate somebody being manipulated over the phone, and the types of pretexts and ruses that are used...and maybe that will make somebody think, next time they get a phone call." Committee Chairman Fred Thompson (Republican, Tennessee) called Mitnick's presentation "very short but very powerful." "As I sit here and listen to you....if one individual can do what you have done, what in the world could a foreign nation do with all the assets that they would have at their disposal?" Thompson asked. Mitnick pointed out that a foreign government would find it extremely easy to plant employees in US government agencies and private corporations who could compromise operating system and application code with backdoors, or compromise existing security measures on a network. But beyond the industrial training film, he had no particular recommendation but continued vigilance among network administrators and increased training and education among all employees with access to protected information. It would appear that the affable Mitnick 'social-engineered' the Senate Committee quite ably. There were several occasions where he engaged freely in good-natured banter with Chairman Thompson, Ranking Member Joseph Leiberman (Democrat, Connecticut), and Susan Collins (Republican, Maine), who observed that he'd "paid a pretty heavy price for the crime." A bit too heavy, we took her to mean. As they were wrapping up, Thompson asked Mitnick a question: "How much time did you actually serve? "Fifty-nine months and seven days," he replied with a smile. "Fifty-nine months," Thompson repeated, slowly shaking his head. "Well you know, if to get your excitement you'd raised millions of dollars for political campaigns, you'd have got probation, he quipped. ®

Sponsored: Today’s most dangerous security threats