RIP Kevin Mitnick: Former most-wanted hacker dies at 59

Tributes paid to husband, father, son and rogue-turned-consultant

Obit Kevin Mitnick, probably the world's most-famous computer hacker – and subsequently writer, public speaker, and security consultant – has succumbed to pancreatic cancer. He was 59.

Tributes have poured in from around the world following the announcement of his death this week.

"We've lost a true pioneer of the digital world, Kevin Mitnick," said Chris Wysopal, a former member of the L0pht team and today an infosec CTO. "His ingenuity challenged systems, incited dialogues, and pushed boundaries in cybersecurity. He will remain a testament to the uncharted power of curiosity."

Kevin's wife Kimberley, who is pregnant with their son, said: "Till we see each other again, I know you are here with me. I hear your voice. Our son will know you and I am convinced he will be a mini you. I am grateful we have so many friends all over the world who will teach our son how to hack and more importantly who the real Kevin Mitnick was."

Mitnick was sometimes known as the Ghost in the Wires after his book of the same name, and was an early celebrity in the area of computer security, as well as a sometime Register contributor. We could hardly introduce him better than he could himself: twenty years ago, we recommended his book the Art of Deception and he generously permitted us to publish its unused autobiographical first chapter.

As a teenager, Mitnick worked out how to obtain free travel on the bus system of the greater Los Angeles area in his native California, and later progressed to breaking into the computer systems of Digital Equipment Corporation and Pacific Bell. He served a number of jail sentences even before he made it onto the FBI's Most Wanted list. He was apprehended in 1998, and served about three years in prison, which he later referred to as a "vacation." On his release, he was banned from using any form of computer for three years, and even lost his ham radio license, although after a legal battle he won that back.

Mitnick was so celebrated that he had his own line of merchandise, not that eBay was happy to sell some of it, and the highly imaginative movie Takedown was made about his pursuit and capture. Even his business card became well known: it is an embossed piece of metal that doubles as a lock-picking kit.

That said, as a sometimes controversial character, he had some flaws. In his younger days he became known for falling out with friends and retaliating using his computer security skills. While not necessarily a software or hardware wizard, he was a genius social engineer.

Soon after his release he was allowed to use computers again, and used his know-how to trace a hoaxer making bomb threats, and with a sort of majestic inevitability, he became a target of cyber-miscreants himself.

During his final imprisonment, the "Free Kevin" movement became a rallying cry for a new generation of not only computer geeks but digital rights activists. He successfully turned his notoriety into a consultancy career, advising companies on improving their online security.

He cofounded security biz KnowBe4 and was Chief Hacking Officer. Business partner Stu Sjouwerman said: "Kevin was a dear friend to me and many of us here at KnowBe4. He is truly a luminary in the development of the cybersecurity industry, but mostly, Kevin was just a wonderful human being and he will be dearly missed."

His family's obituary states Mitnick had been fighting pancreatic cancer for 14 months. He died peacefully on Sunday, July 16. This is the same disease that took the lives of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Shuttle astronaut Sally Ride, microprocessor pioneer Victor Poor, and "father of fractals" Benoit Mandelbrot.

Kevin is survived by his wife Kimberly, who is expecting their first child, and family. ®

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