Kevin Poulsen Report

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Introduction

Kevin Poulsen is a news editor at wired.com, and is co-author of Kingpin — How One Hacker Took Over the Billion Dollar Cyber Crime Underground (Crown, 2010). However, Poulsen did not start out as a journalist. Kevin Poulsen began his “career” as a hacker, and thanks to media attention, became rather notorious for his exploits. In this report I will attempt to highlight what Kevin Poulsen is famous for, what techniques he used, the criminal charges faced and the possible punishments, the social and ethical issues surrounding the case, and what countermeasures could have been used to prevent Poulsen's attacks.

What he is Famous for?

Kevin, like many hackers, began his hacking at a very early age. At age 13 he was hacking into telephone systems to impress friends, so that he and they were able to make free calls to long distance numbers. This activity is known as ‘phreaking’, and at the time was largely used for fun, although malicious uses could be made. By age 17 Kevin and a friend, Ronald Austin, hacked into the ARPANET, (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), which was the world’s first operational packet switching network and the core network of a set that came to compose the internet. They were both caught, but “Because Poulsen was a juvenile, he wasn’t charged, but Austin was convicted of several of the 14 charges against him…” (Doug Fine for Spin Magazine, Jan 1994, page 64).

It would be three years later that Kevin Poulsen was to make his mark. Kevin hacked into the telephone and computer systems of Pacific Bell, as well as gaining entry to their buildings. He was caught again but it took the court nearly 18 moths to decide on what charges to impose on him. During this time, Kevin allegedly went on the run. Whilst waiting on the indictment, Kevin engaged in more hacking and phreaking activities. He and some friends hacked into the telephone system of KIIS-FM radio station in order to win the phone in competitions. In order to win the competition, you had to be the 102nd caller. Kevin and his cohorts managed to rig the system so that the first 101 callers would get through fine, but every call after was blocked, allowing Kevin to make his call, which would go through, making him the 102nd caller and win the prize. Between them they had won 2 Porches, approx. $20,000 and 2 holidays to Hawaii. Kevin had been working for SRI International (formerly Stanford Research Institute, an American Defence contractor with high level security clearance), while simultaneously engaging in ‘black-hat’ activities and because of this, when Pacific Bell investigators discovered his actions the FBI became involved and began to put together an espionage case against him.

Kevin Poulsen became a fugitive in the eyes of the law, although this claim is spurious at best. After the arrest Kevin was released pending indictment. “A source who knew Poulsen when he was living in L.A. says the hacker wasn’t a fugitive at all. It took the government until 1990, more than a year after Poulsen’s arrest in Menlo Park, to come up with the indictment. Legally he was allowed to move, but, according to the prosecution, was supposed to surrender after the indictment” (Doug Fine for Spin Magazine, Jan 1994, page 64).

He was featured in 2 separate episodes of the TV series ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ (somewhat similar to the UKs Crimewatch), and during the airing of the second, the TV shows incoming phone lines died at the same moment as Kevin Poulsen’s picture appeared on screen. This show was helpful to the authorities as later in 1991 he was recognised by security in a local supermarket, where he was detained and arrested. It was the winning of the competitions that caught the publics eye, but what really made him infamous was the other tricks he had been up to during his ‘time on the run’. Once again Kevin hacked into Pacific Bells systems and uncovered details of wiretaps placed by the FBI on suspected...
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