How a young magician become the world's most famous hacker

Kevin Mitnick is a “white hat” hacker who abides by the law and breaks into computer systems to help corporations and organizations figure out the weak spots in their security. Before that, the FBI had called him the “most wanted hacker”, and arrested him for 5 years, keeping him in isolation, afraid of what he could accomplish even from his jail cell.

And before that, he was a budding magician.

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“When I was a young kid, I was fascinated with magic,” he says in a recent Wall Street Journal interview. The magic tricks turned to pranks and that turned to exploring and gaming the technology of phone and modem services. By 17 he was already in jail and continued hacking obsessively, driven by the need to solve a puzzle, rather than reach monetary gain or wreak havoc like modern hackers.

So how did a young magician grow up to be the world’s most famous hacker? Because a good hacker knows how to Think Like A Magician™.

Hackers do 3 things explicitly well that are also perfected by the world’s greatest magicians:

Magicians and hackers see things through the eyes of their audience.

In this case, the hacker’s audience is their “mark” to use a con-man term. In order for the hack to be undetectable they have to know what will seem natural to the user. What steps will they follow or links they will click without a red flag going up in their minds? This is a major part of what’s known as “social engineering” — the ability to consciously  influence the thoughts and actions someone will take. 

Magicians and hackers rely on their audience’s assumptions.

Magicians count on people’s brains being lazy and people jumping to a simple answer or solution. Thats how we’re wired: to stop thinking as soon as possible. When it comes to creating passwords, or setting up processes, we want to make it as easy on our minds as possible. Magicians count on that. And so do hackers. 

Magicians and hackers have patience.

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For a magician, timing and patience are key to fooling an audience. “Anything can be compromised when your adversary has unlimited time, money, resources and patience,” says Mitnick in the WSJ interview. The famous magician, Max Malini, when asked how long he would wait to execute a secret move, said “you wait a week.” Meaning: you never rush so as not arouse suspicion.  In a classic 1902 treaty on card magic and sleight of hand, the mysterious writer, S. W. Erdnase wrote that a secret maneuver (like palming a card or breaking into a computer) should be done so invisibly, that "the most critical observer would not even suspect, let alone detect” the action. Perhaps this is why Mitnick titled his book “The Art of Invisibility.”

And this is why hacking is so similar to magic. When I learned that Kevin Mitnick started his career with a fascination for magic, it made perfect sense. Great magicians are great lateral thinkers, considering every possibility and thinking of multiple methods to accomplishing the same effect. I would imagine that successful hackers also study their marks and consider every approach possible, considering every action and reaction, like a game of chess.

We should be glad that Kevin is wearing the white hat now. Although I can’t help and wonder how much more joy he could have brought to the world if he had just stayed on the path of becoming a magician.