Free Kevin, Kevin Freed

Technical editor Jason Kroll speculates on the release of hacker Kevin Mitnick—and freedom for the rest of us.

At 6:30 AM PST, Friday January 21st, Kevin Mitnick was finally released from prison after nearly five years of being held without bail and without trial since his arrest in February of 1995. He was indicted on 25 counts of computer and wire fraud, to which he initially pleaded “not guilty.” He was ultimately coerced into a guilty plea when it became clear that the government intended to keep him in prison indefinitely pending confession, and that a guilty plea would accelerate his release. In his recent plea bargain, he pleaded guilty to 5 of the federal charges. The terms of his release leave him penniless, in debt, and not allowed to talk about computers, or use a cellular or cordless phone, for the next three years. He lists “gardening” as one occupation open to him; even fast food work would violate the terms of his release. The circumstances surrounding Kevin's imprisonment have been the source of scandal and controversy for the years he has been incarcerated. He is the Kevin of the FREE KEVIN movement.

How he got there.

Kevin had been charged with innocuous computer crimes before, once in 1989 when he was accused of breaking into corporate networks and copying random files (the typical trophy-taking procedure of curious network explorers), to which he pleaded guilty and served 8 months in solitary confinement on account of the judge's fear that Kevin would be a threat to national security if given access to a telephone (the specific story, as recounted in various periodicals including Forbes, is that Kevin was thought to be able to launch nuclear missiles by whistling into a telephone. Kevin was also recently placed in solitary due to fears that he could use an FM radio for similar nefarious purposes. Most recently, he was denied use of a modemless laptop to review 9GB of evidence against him for fear that he could be particularly dangerous with such technology).

With the memory of this eight-month trauma fresh in his mind, Kevin disappeared on Christmas eve of 1992 to avoid further questioning about more alleged exploits. He was consequently reported to have made it to the FBI's “Most Wanted List,” (though this turns out to be a complete lie despite its reputable source); and was taken into custody in a big media spectacle after New York Times writer John Markoff, who calculatingly used his position to construct the Mitnick myth (with numerous fabrications, including the above-mentioned “Most Wanted” myth as well as the story that Mitnick as a teenager had electronically broken into NORAD), coordinated with computer user Tsutomu Shimomura and the FBI to find Kevin, write a book about him, and sell movie rights.

Following his arrest, Kevin was denied a bail hearing and accused of $299,927,389.61 in damages. Sun Microsystems alleged that, by downloading the source code to Solaris (which was available for $100, and apparently free for students), Kevin had cost the company $80 million, a figure which Sun failed to report to its stockholders and to the SEC, despite legal obligation to do so. In fact, none of the companies that alleged losses (also including Motorola, Fujitsu, Nokia, Novell and NEC) reported anything of the sort either to their shareholders or to the SEC. It turns out the government had coached these firms in how to estimate their damages, although even the government hadn't expected them to be able to arrive at such an enormous figure. Eventually the feds convinced the court that $80 million was the most reasonable estimate (much greater than the $1.5 million which the government had first alleged—but less than the later $300 million corporate allegations). In the end, estimates severely eroded and Kevin was ordered to pay restitution of a little over $4000.

Outrage and protests

Kevin's case sparked outrage across the Internet because of the flagrant violations of civil rights and the cruel, authoritarian tactics of the government (including use of evidence which was seized illegally). In journalist communities, many questioned the ethics of Markoff, who profitted handsomely, was friends with Shimomura and had a hand in the FBI takedown—facts which he and the New York Times concealed from his readers. Civil rights groups from the ACLU to Amnesty International and the EFF refused to stand up for Kevin, with excuses ranging from not understanding the situation clearly to not wanting to be associated with “computer hackers.”

Although many people were frightened and intimidated by the spectacle, certain communities stood up for Kevin and opposed the civil rights violations, government collusion, zealous persecution, and the intrusion of the government in computer technology. The most vocal of these was the 2600 community, a loosely knit but intelligent and dedicated lot oriented around the eponymous magazine also known as the Hacker Quarterly. Spearheaded by Emmanuel Goldstein (Eric Corley), the community led the FREE KEVIN campaign, which ranged in events from distributing information, collecting defense fund donations, exposing civil rights violations and government collusion, leaking documents and sponsoring protests. Smaller protests localized around movie theaters in order to distribute the truth about Kevin's predicament to movie-goers likely to see the upcoming Takedown, the heavily fraudulent movie somehow inspired by Markoff and Shimomura's book. The height of the protests came on June 4th, however, when protesters gathered by the dozens outside of federal court-houses across America and at the US embassy in Moscow, with a clear message: FREE KEVIN. A sky writer even sprayed FREE KEVIN across the sky in New York, while an airplane toted a sign. And, although not endorsed or encouraged, dozens of websites across the world (including the New York Times) had their pages replaced by FREE KEVIN messages, placed there by Kevin supporters who favored law-skirting PR tactics.

The protests did not lead to Kevin's immediate release; he never got bail and never got a trial. However, they did raise awareness across the board, exposing the immeasurable ignorance of the government as regards computers, the maliciousness of the courts and the medieval tactic of “making an example” out of Kevin, so typical in computer crime. In centuries past, he might have been impaled or crucified.

Kevin's plight touched many lives, thanks to countless supporters of all age groups. Young supporters often wrote school essays or articles for their school newspapers, and now educators all over the country are aware of this esoteric, yet critical civil rights issue. FREE KEVIN even appeared on national television and in numerous media venues such as Forbes, Wired, and ZDNet (bonus points if you find the “freekevin” in Linux Journal). Even Miramax, who was producing the Takedown movie, apparently re-worked the script to remove many of the defamatory allegations (such as Kevin making racial slurs and physically assaulting Shimomura with a garbage can, which is ironic since Kevin had never been anywhere remotely close to Shimomura).

Although on one level Kevin is remembered as an early contributor to the Linux kernel [a memory which the facts do not corroborate], today he is more of an example to all computer users of the dangers of zealous, authoritarian government, which isn't exactly the example the feds hoped to make. Americans tolerated the government's Drug War for years, despite its grievous offenses against civil liberties and civil rights. However, now that the government is arbitrarily stalking the computer community, more people are resisting and fighting back.