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Taking a firm stand against "violent felons"

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What would you pay for a vintage computer once used by hacker Kevin Mitnick? How about a cell phone that he once spoke on, or a genuine prison I.D. card?

On Monday, on-line auction house eBay cancelled an offering of Mitnick's official federal Bureau of Prisons inmate I.D. card, ending a flow of authentic Mitnick merchandise put up by his father on behalf of the legendary hacker, who is himself barred from using computers, and of course accessing the Web, under the terms of his supervised release.

The laminated plastic card was carried by Mitnick during his stint at a federal correctional institute in Lompoc, California, where it served both as identification and as a debit card for prison vending machines. It bears Mitnick's name, mug shot and federal prisoner number.

Before eBay cancelled the auction, the standing bid for the card was over $1000. "And it was only up for less than forty-eight hours," says Mitnick.

Two other pieces of Mitnick memorabilia have already sold on eBay: Mitnick's "first computer," a circa 1982 TRS-80 Pocket Computer Model PC-2, which went for $510, and a cell phone Mitnick recently gave up in favour of a newer model sold for $355.

Of course, both items came with a certificates of authenticity and an autographed "Free Kevin" bumper sticker.

In an e-mail message to Mitnick's father, an eBay customer service representative claimed the company stopped the auction under its policy prohibiting sellers convicted of a "violent felony" from profiting from their misdeeds.

Mitnick plead guilty to a number of felonies last year in connection with a string of electronic intrusions into software and cell phone companies in the mid-90's, but none of the crimes were violent in any usual sense of the word.

Perhaps realizing this, a later message from a different representative claimed eBay cancelled the auction based on a policy against selling federal I.D. cards. The company also cited a policy that bars any sale of stolen property.

In fact, Mitnick's breathless sales pitch ("act now and own a piece of history") included the claim that the hacker had to smuggle the I.D. card out of prison upon his release. "The item, as it was described, was smuggled out of a federal penitentiary," says eBay spokesperson Kevin Purglove. "Therefore, one could question whether or not the one selling it is the rightful owner of the merchandise."

Mitnick now says there was no smuggling involved, and admits he included the dramatic line to "make it more exciting."

"It's not stolen," says Mitnick. "I'd be insane to sell something that's stolen on eBay."

"A lot of times the inmates need the cards when they're released to get on a plane to go home, or to get on a bus," agrees federal Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Tracy Billingsley. "They're not leaving with a drivers license or any form of I.D., so sometimes we let them take it with them."

But while Billingsley says the thousand-dollar card is not stolen property, she claims that it isn't Mitnick's to sell, either. "It is a government document, it is the property of the Bureau of Prisons," she says. "Inmates are not obligated to return it, but they're not free to sell it."

Mitnick, who paid $5.00 for the card in prison, disagrees. He's begun looking for another outlet for the sale. "The Bureau of Prisons can sue me," Mitnick says.

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