Tech Time Warp: Everybody was kung fu fighting
This week’s Tech Time Warp goes back twenty-nine years ago, when one of the more convoluted chapters in technology history was being written. Research scientist Tsutomu Shimomura was enjoying a Christmas vacation in Lake Tahoe when he received a troubling phone call from a colleague at the San Diego Supercomputing Center. Their files had been hacked.
Shimomura had been following the exploits of fugitive hacker Kevin Mitnick, who was wanted by the FBI for numerous hacking crimes. Shimomura suspected Mitnick, and he joined the FBI and U.S. marshals in their quest to track him down.
The Mitnick case was already interesting. His ability to elude capture and live in disguise was impressive. But once Shimomura got involved, things got weird. Someone began leaving unusual kung fu-themed voicemails for Shimomura. Calling Shimomura “grasshopper,” the caller taunted him: “Don’t you know that my kung fu is the best?”
The timeline gets a bit shaky here. Shimomura did use cellular data to track Mitnick down—tracing him to a suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina, where the feds apprehended him on Feb. 15, 1995. But a couple of the voicemails arrived after Mitnick’s arrest. Shimomura had posted initial voicemail audio online, and it had inspired one-time phone “phreak” (hacker) Zeke Shif to get in on the action. News reports of Mitnick’s arrest tied the voicemails to the case, and Shif freaked out (pun intended). He left a couple more voicemails for Shimomura to extricate himself from the Mitnick case.
Mitnick passed away July 16, 2023, after a yearlong battle with pancreatic cancer. After serving his prison term, he built a career in white hat hacking. Shimomura wrote a book about his involvement in Mitnick’s arrest.
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