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.