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Kevin Mitnick Hacked California Law in 1983

Early in his career, Kevin Mitnick successfully hacked California law. He told me the story when he heard about my new book, which he partially recounts his 2012 book, Ghost in the Wires.

The setup is that he just discovered that there’s warrant for his arrest by the California Youth Authority, and he’s trying to figure out if there’s any way out of it.

As soon as I was settled, I looked in the Yellow Pages for the nearest law school, and spent the next few days and evenings there poring over the Welfare and Institutions Code, but without much hope.

Still, hey, “Where there’s a will…” I found a provision that said that for a nonviolent crime, the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court expired either when the defendant turned twenty-one or two years after the commitment date, whichever occurred later. For me, that would mean two years from February 1983, when I had been sentenced to the three years and eight months.

Scratch, scratch. A little arithmetic told me that this would occur in about four months. I thought, What if I just disappear until their jurisdiction ends?

This was the Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. This was a lot of manual research—no search engines in those days. He researched the relevant statutes, and case law that interpreted those statutes. He made copies of everything to hand to his attorney.

I called my attorney to try out the idea on him. His response sounded testy: “You’re absolutely wrong. It’s a fundamental principle of law that if a defendant disappears when there’s a warrant out for him, the time limit is tolled until he’s found, even if it’s years later.”

And he added, “You have to stop playing lawyer. I’m the lawyer. Let me do my job.”

I pleaded with him to look into it, which annoyed him, but he finally agreed. When I called back two days later, he had talked to my Parole Officer, Melvin Boyer, the compassionate guy who had gotten me transferred out of the dangerous jungle at LA County Jail. Boyer had told him, “Kevin is right. If he disappears until February 1985, there’ll be nothing we can do. At that point the warrant will expire, and he’ll be off the hook.”

So he moved to Northern California and lived under an assumed name for four months.

What’s interesting to me is how he approaches legal code in the same way a hacker approaches computer code: pouring over the details, looking for a bug—a mistake—leading to an exploitable vulnerability. And this was in the days before you could do any research online. He’s spending days in the law school library.

This is exactly the sort of thing I am writing about in A Hacker’s Mind. Legal code isn’t the same as computer code, but it’s a series of rules with inputs and outputs. And just like computer code, legal code has bugs. And some of those bugs are also vulnerabilities. And some of those vulnerabilities can be exploited—just as Mitnick learned.

Mitnick was a hacker. His attorney was not.

Posted on January 27, 2023 at 3:19 PM28 Comments

On Alec Baldwin’s Shooting

We recently learned that Alec Baldwin is being charged with involuntary manslaughter for his accidental shooting on a movie set. I don’t know the details of the case, nor the intricacies of the law, but I have a question about movie props.

Why was an actual gun used on the set? And why were actual bullets used on the set? Why wasn’t it a fake gun: plastic, or metal without a working barrel? Why does it have to fire blanks? Why can’t everyone just pretend, and let someone add the bang and the muzzle flash in post-production?

Movies are filled with fakery. The light sabers in Star Wars weren’t real; the lighting effects and “wooj-wooj” noises were add afterwards. The phasers in Star Trek weren’t real either. Jar Jar Binks was 100% computer generated. So were a gazillion “props” from the Harry Potter movies. Even regular, non-SF non-magical movies have special effects. They’re easy.

Why are guns different?

Posted on January 26, 2023 at 7:08 AM52 Comments

US Cyber Command Operations During the 2022 Midterm Elections

The head of both US Cyber Command and the NSA, Gen. Paul Nakasone, broadly discussed that first organization’s offensive cyber operations during the runup to the 2022 midterm elections. He didn’t name names, of course:

We did conduct operations persistently to make sure that our foreign adversaries couldn’t utilize infrastructure to impact us,” said Nakasone. “We understood how foreign adversaries utilize infrastructure throughout the world. We had that mapped pretty well. And we wanted to make sure that we took it down at key times.”

Nakasone noted that Cybercom’s national mission force, aided by NSA, followed a “campaign plan” to deprive the hackers of their tools and networks. “Rest assured,” he said. “We were doing operations well before the midterms began, and we were doing operations likely on the day of the midterms.” And they continued until the elections were certified, he said.

We know Cybercom did similar things in 2018 and 2020, and presumably will again in two years.

Posted on January 25, 2023 at 7:00 AM5 Comments

Bulk Surveillance of Money Transfers

Just another obscure warrantless surveillance program.

US law enforcement can access details of money transfers without a warrant through an obscure surveillance program the Arizona attorney general’s office created in 2014. A database stored at a nonprofit, the Transaction Record Analysis Center (TRAC), provides full names and amounts for larger transfers (above $500) sent between the US, Mexico and 22 other regions through services like Western Union, MoneyGram and Viamericas. The program covers data for numerous Caribbean and Latin American countries in addition to Canada, China, France, Malaysia, Spain, Thailand, Ukraine and the US Virgin Islands. Some domestic transfers also enter the data set.

[…]

You need to be a member of law enforcement with an active government email account to use the database, which is available through a publicly visible web portal. Leber told The Journal that there haven’t been any known breaches or instances of law enforcement misuse. However, Wyden noted that the surveillance program included more states and countries than previously mentioned in briefings. There have also been subpoenas for bulk money transfer data from Homeland Security Investigations (which withdrew its request after Wyden’s inquiry), the DEA and the FBI.

How is it that Arizona can be in charge of this?

Wall Street Journal podcast—with transcript—on the program. I think the original reporting was from last March, but I missed it back then.

Posted on January 24, 2023 at 7:14 AM25 Comments

No-Fly List Exposed

I can’t remember the last time I thought about the US no-fly list: the list of people so dangerous they should never be allowed to fly on an airplane, yet so innocent that we can’t arrest them. Back when I thought about it a lot, I realized that the TSA’s practice of giving it to every airline meant that it was not well protected, and it certainly ended up in the hands of every major government that wanted it.

The list is back in the news today, having been left exposed on an insecure airline computer. (The airline is CommuteAir, a company so obscure that I’ve never heard of it before.)

This is, of course, the problem with having to give a copy of your secret list to lots of people.

Posted on January 23, 2023 at 7:02 AM29 Comments

Publisher’s Weekly Review of A Hacker’s Mind

Publisher’s Weekly reviewed A Hacker’s Mind—and it’s a starred review!

“Hacking is something that the rich and powerful do, something that reinforces existing power structures,” contends security technologist Schneier (Click Here to Kill Everybody) in this excellent survey of exploitation. Taking a broad understanding of hacking as an “activity allowed by the system that subverts the… system,” Schneier draws on his background analyzing weaknesses in cybersecurity to examine how those with power take advantage of financial, legal, political, and cognitive systems. He decries how venture capitalists “hack” market dynamics by subverting the pressures of supply and demand, noting that venture capital has kept Uber afloat despite the company having not yet turned a profit. Legal loopholes constitute another form of hacking, Schneier suggests, discussing how the inability of tribal courts to try non-Native individuals means that many sexual assaults of Native American women go unprosecuted because they were committed by non-Native American men. Schneier outlines strategies used by corporations to capitalize on neural processes and “hack… our attention circuits,” pointing out how Facebook’s algorithms boost content that outrages users because doing so increases engagement. Elegantly probing the mechanics of exploitation, Schneier makes a persuasive case that “we need society’s rules and laws to be as patchable as your computer.” With lessons that extend far beyond the tech world, this has much to offer.

The book will be published on February 7. Here’s the book’s webpage. You can pre-order a signed copy from me here.

Posted on January 21, 2023 at 7:18 AM3 Comments

Friday Squid Blogging: Another Giant Squid Captured on Video

Here’s a new video of a giant squid, filmed in the Sea of Japan.

I believe it’s injured. It’s so close to the surface, and not really moving very much.

“We didn’t see the kinds of agile movements that many fish and marine creatures normally show,” he said. “Its tentacles and fins were moving very slowly.”

As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered.

Read my blog posting guidelines here.

Posted on January 20, 2023 at 5:00 PM84 Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.