I got started in hacking because of my love of magic. As a young kid, I used to visit the local magic shop in Los Angeles to watch these guys perform their tricks over and over and over because I always wanted to know how the trick worked.
Fast forward to my high school years and I met a kid that could work magic with the phone system. He showed me how to do all of these cool things he could do with the phone.
For example, he called this number and it read back the number he was calling from, or he could get my mom’s unlisted number. Or he could call something called The Customer Name and Address Bureau and it was a secret thing you could do with the phone company. You give them any number and they would give you the name of the person it belonged to.
This was back in the 1970s. I thought, “wow, this is really cool. Like the type of thing you could use for magic tricks.”
It wasn’t long before I got into phone tricks and doing prankster things like changing my friend’s phones to payphones. Whenever his parents would try to make a call, it would ask them to please deposit 25 cents. When I got involved in this, another kid in school suggested I take a computer class.
So I was introduced to this computer science instructor and I didn’t meet the prerequisites to take the class. But I showed him all the tricks I could do with the phone and he lets me in. The first programming assignment he gives the class is to write a Fortran program to find the first 100 Fibonacci numbers. At the time I thought, “Well that’s kind of boring. I’ve got to write something cooler.”
Back in those days, we had a dumb terminal and we’d actually use a dial-up modem. We put the handset in this acoustic coupler modem and it dialed to downtown Los Angeles to this computer system.
I realized by watching the students and by watching the teacher that nobody would hang up the phone after they logged out of the computer. So I thought, what if I could write a program that could pretend to be the computer’s operating system and it would ask the user for their username and password? It would log them in and let them do their work, but at the same time, it would store their username and password in a file that I could retrieve later.
So my first programming assignment, I actually wrote a program to steal the teacher’s password.
When he came around the class to collect our assignments, I obviously didn’t have the Fibonacci assignment done. I turned in the password-stealing program instead. The instructor was so happy and amazed that he gave me a bunch of atta-boys.
These were the ethics that taught a young Kevin Mitnick that it’s cool to hack.
So that’s how I actually got started: the love of magic, my passionate interest in amateur radio and telephony. I really got involved in hacking not to cause damage or steal money, nothing like that. It was all about the challenge, the seduction of adventure and the pursuit of knowledge. It was like a big video game to me.