April 24, 1996

Hacker Reaches Plea Bargain With Federal Prosecutors

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    Kevin Mitnick, the country's most notorious computer hacker until he was tracked down and arrested in a high-technology manhunt last year, has reached a plea bargain in which he has admitted possessing stolen cellular telephone devices and violating terms of probation that resulted from a previous computer break-in.

    The plea agreement on the two charges, which was reached with federal prosecutors in Los Angeles on Monday, appears to have satisfied all the 23 federal counts filed against the 32-year-old Mitnick so far. Sentencing on the two counts, the more serious of which carries a maximum term of 20 years in prison, is scheduled for July.

    But the plea bargain does not mean that Mitnick has no more charges to fear. All the 23 counts brought so far, which the agreement appears to dispose of, were filed in North Carolina, where Mitnick was captured in February 1995 after a three-year nationwide game of electronic cat and mouse involving some of the nation's top law-enforcement and civilian computer experts.

    Now, people familiar with the criminal investigation said on Tuesday, Mitnick, known in the computer underworld as Condor, almost certainly faces an array of serious charges in California arising from his exploitation of global computer and telephone networks over the last 15 years.

    "This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Mark D. Rasch, who, as head of the Justice Department's computer crime effort, began tracking Mitnick's activities nearly a decade ago.

    The federal charges brought against Mitnick in North Carolina included the possession of millions of dollars' worth of corporate software, trade secrets, credit-card numbers and other electronic information taken from hundreds of supposedly secure computers. The charges were transferred to Los Angeles last year after Mitnick, in a bid to be closer to his family and his lawyer, agreed to enter a plea there.

    His friends say Mitnick was a lonely, overweight teen-ager who started breaking into computer and telephone systems shortly after he had discovered a talent for manipulating both electronics and people.

    Mitnick's legend as a computer and telephone hacker grew quickly, beginning with incursions into the computers of the Los Angeles school district and the North American Air Defense Command. He served a year in prison for one break-in and was on probation when he fled California in 1992 during an investigation of an intrusion into the Pacific Bell telephone system computers.

    The California Department of Motor Vehicles also issued a warrant for his arrest, asserting that he had obtained access to the department's records by posing as a law enforcement officer.

    On Christmas Day 1994, Mitnick allegedly broke into a computer owned by Tsutomu Shimomura, a computer security expert working at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, a national laboratory. The intruder taunted Shimomura, who then joined the search for Mitnick and traced him to North Carolina.

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