He was a criminal hacker. Now he protects companies from people like him.

These hackers penetrated companies like Nokia and Fujitsu. One was on the run from the FBI, the other was being watched by Aus. Federal Police. They reveal how they turned their illegal hacking into a career.

Kevin

Kevin Mitnick is seen after being released from the Federal Correctional Institution in Lompoc, California. Source: Greg Finley/Getty

Insight hears from those who’ve been hacked, hackers that have been jailed and what help is out there. Being Hacked, Tuesday, September 1 at 8:30pm.

Before he became one of the world’s most famous convicted hackers, had a love for magic tricks. As a child he would eagerly pedal his bike through the streets of Los Angeles to watch magicians perform at the local tricks store, determined to unveil their secrets.

Kevin grew up in the 1970s when computer technology was beginning to shift from mechanical and analogue to electronic. Motivated by what he calls “the seduction of adventure”, he began tapping into phone networks (known as ‘’) to play harmless teenage pranks on friends. By the time he reached his mid-twenties, Kevin’s tricks had evolved into sophisticated hacks on phone companies including Nokia, NEC and Motorola.

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“[I had] zero interest in money. My motivation was all about the challenge … I wanted to understand how it all worked because I was fascinated with radio, I was fascinated with computers,” Mitnick tells

In 1989 Kevin was charged and pleaded guilty to computer fraud and unauthorised possession of telephone codes that he used to hack a UK university. The judge ordered him to do rehabilitation treatment for his ‘computer hacking addiction’, and under strict probation, was prohibited from entering computers illegally and associating with people convicted of similar crimes.

Kevin
Computer hacker Kevin Mitnick arrives after being released from the Federal Correction Institute in Lompoc, California after five years behind bars. Source: AP


Yet Kevin turned his nose up to authorities and continued hacking, leading him to be the subject of a two-and-a-half-year manhunt led by the FBI.

“Rather than turning myself in, I decided catch me if you can.”

By day Kevin worked in IT at a Denver law firm under the alias Erik Weisz, and by night, he was hacking into major phone companies and internet service providers including Nokia, Fujitsu, and Sun Microsystems, stealing confidential source codes. His way in was often through deceiving employees into providing him with user accounts and passwords by pretending to be an employee of the same company (an act known as social engineering).

On the other side of the world in the NSW coastal town of Eden, Bastien Treptel shared a similar fascination for computers and technology. As a child he would disassemble any technology he could get his hands on, including his father’s old telescope and his mother’s washing machine.

After his grandfather gave him an old Pentium 486 computer when he was 14, Bastien began reading about hackers like Kevin. These hackers were a source of inspiration for him.

In 1996, he got a knock on the door from the Australian Federal Police. He had hacked into a major Australian bank, accessing 40,000 credit card numbers and sensitive personal information. One of the banks had alerted the police after noticing suspicious activity.

Bastien Treptel
Bastien Treptel began hacking when he was 14. Source: Insight


“I wanted to understand how systems worked and it was just this amazing icing on the cake once you managed to break into these organisations … that was just a huge high,” Bastien says.

Bastien got away with a slap on the wrist, and no charges were ever laid. He maintains he never did anything more malicious than order a pizza to see if those credit cards would work.

“If you were to do what I did today you would likely end up in gaol for a significant period of time,” he tells Insight.

Kevin Mitnick wasn’t as lucky. In 1995, the FBI finally caught up with him and he spent almost five years in prison. Upon his release Kevin spent three years on probation where he was prohibited from using computers, mobile phones and essentially any form of communication technology. In 2003 Kevin began hacking again – only now he was being with their permission.

In what is known in the cybersecurity industry as ‘penetration testing’, companies will hire hackers to break into their computer networks in order to identify vulnerabilities that could be exploited by a malicious hacker.

As with Kevin, Bastien was able to turn his fascination with technology into a career in cybersecurity. He says Australian businesses aren’t taking cybersecurity seriously enough and don’t understand the increasing threat of hacking.

A previous version of this article has been amended for editorial reasons.


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Published 31 August 2020 at 2:59pm