"Mr. Mitnick's criminal background raises a substantial and material question of fact as to whether he possesses the requisite character qualifications to be and remain a commission licensee," the FCC said. "Given his propensity to engage in criminal activities, particularly those involving fraud, we have serious reservations about Mr. Mitnick's ability to comply with our rules and regulations in the future."
What's more, the FCC reminds us, "Mr. Mitnick's prolific and damaging hacking career made him the most wanted computer criminal in United States history."
Mitnick was convicted of hacking-related felonies and was released from prison in January of 2001. He's still on probation until January 2003.
Mitnick's had a ham radio license for about 25 years, and he applied two years ago for what's normally a routine renewal. He's not accused of making any illicit radio transmissions or any offenses that fall under the FCC's jurisdiction -- it's just that official Washington firmly believes computer hacking must be an unforgivable venal sin.
Under FCC regulations, Mitnick's loss of his license is probable, but not automatic. A hearing will be scheduled at some to-be-determined date before an FCC administrative law judge (who, no surprise, typically sides with the bureaucrats). Appeals go to the full commission and from there to the federal courts.
"It's just another example of them trying to harass me," Mitnick said Friday evening. "Now I've got to spend money to keep a ham license. How ridiculous."
"Obviously I'm going to have to fight for my right to be licensed," said Mitnick, who uses his ham radio every day. If Mitnick doesn't respond in 20 days, he automatically loses.
Federal law requires amateur radio enthusiasts to obtain a license from the government. Mitnick has a "general class" license that required him to pass a five-words-per-minute Morse code test. (His callsign is N6NHG.)
This action against Mitnick doesn't affect his "Dark Side of the Internet" radio show, which aired on KFI AM 640. Citing an advertising slowdown, the radio station gave it the axe on 10 December.
The FCC believes it can do pretty much whatever it wants to Mitnick thanks to an enormously favorable DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last year. The judges said that the FCC could rescind the license of an amateur radio operator convicted of calling long distance for free via fake access codes, a felony.
"There is nothing unreasonable about the FCC's conclusion that (Herbert) Schoenbohm's felony conviction was relevant to his license renewal. A conviction for fraudulent conduct plainly calls into question a licensee's ability to act in a manner consonant with FCC regulations," the panel of judges ruled three to zero.
Fortunately for Mitnick, there's still a way to fight back. He can confess that, yes, he was a felonious knave -- who's completely has changed his ways. The agency's own "Policy Regarding Character Qualifications in Broadcast Licensing" admits that "rehabilitation" is a mitigating factor.
Mitnick insists he's cured. "I was called to testify before Congress on federal computer security and now they're questioning my character," he says, noting that he even spent two days briefing the US Commission on National Security.
The prosecutor who put him behind bars thinks otherwise. Christopher Painter, now deputy chief of the Justice Department's computer crime section, said earlier this month that Mitnick is still an unrepentant wretch.
After running into his former courtroom adversary at the National Press Club, Painter said: "My problem with Mitnick these days is that he's never really accepted responsibility for his conduct... I hope he gets his life together, and I bear him no ill-will, but I think if you don't accept responsibility and you glamorize hacking and you get attention based on your former exploits, that sends the wrong message to people." (Mitnick was in town to speak at a Business Software Alliance conference.)
That was on 6 December. Five days later, the FCC decided to take action against Mitnick. The decision became public on Friday.
A coincidence -- or a way to strike back at the world's most famous convicted hacker? Says Mitnick: "I'm surprised that after two years they did this. Why the delay? It's very suspicious to me." ®