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Off Grid is about the principles of hacking

In the mid 1990’s, after what lawmen rather fancifully described as a “countrywide hacking spree” across the United States, a man called Kevin Mitnick was arrested. He was charged with 25 counts of computer-related crimes which, legend has it, included hacking into NORAD, North America’s aerospace defence system, inspiring the ’80s flick War Games along the way. Legend or not, Mitnick served five years in prison that included eight months in solitary confinement and restricted access to the telephone.

Mitnick was a ‘phone freak’. By recording the sounds played by a payphone when coins were dropped in, he could then play them back to the phone to call whoever he wanted, and also use the then-extortionate internet for free. The problem, Mitnick has since claimed, is that a judge got wind of this particular talent and came to believe that, if granted access to a phone in prison, he could whistle into the receiver to launch a nuclear missile. One version of the story is that the judge actually watched War Games, wherein young Matthew Broderick accidentally hacks into a NORAD-equivalent over the phone, and was so influenced by its portrayal that he was overcome with paranoia, handing out Mitnick’s overly harsh sentence as a result.

What people do agree on – at least they do now – is the fact that despite its wide reportage in the press, Kevin Mitnick never hacked into NORAD, and he had nothing to do with the inspiration for War Games. In a weird, ironic combination of rumour and sensationalism, it would appear that Mitnick spent eight months alone in prison, with no access to a phone, because a judge heard about the exploits of fictional hackers in a film he had also fictionally inspired.

Mitnick’s story is folklore to the modern hacking community. It’s the ideal parable, outlining the ways in which public perception, filled with a growing paranoia that was manipulated by government, exacerbated by an ill-informed press and excited by the entertainment industry, could have a real and damaging impact on human beings. More specifically, on human beings who are also hackers. It also came up at EGX last year, of all places, when I talked to Rich Metson, who’s one of a two-man team behind a little game called Off Grid.