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An upcoming film about alleged cyberfelon Kevin Mitnick enrages the digital underground--and spurs havoc at the New York Times site.

By Zack Stentz
Updated October 02, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Takedown

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It looks as though the Starr Report is no longer the raunchiest thing on the Web. Visitors who logged on to the New York Times website on Sept. 13 found that the Gray Lady’s online counterpart had received a racy makeover, courtesy of a group of hackers calling themselves HFG — ”Hacking for Girlies.” HFG replaced the Times home page with nudie pictures, links to porn and anti-Scientology sites, and, most notably, a rambling screed blasting the Times and reporter John Markoff for its coverage of imprisoned hacker Kevin Mitnick. ”D0 YOU HAV3 N1GHTMAR3S ABOUT H3LP1NG 1MPRIS0N K3VIN?” HFG asked Markoff, using stereotypically creative hacker spelling. ”WHY N0 ARTICL3S 0N TH3 M0VI3 C0M1NG 0UT THAT FURTH3R DEM0NIZ3S HIM?”

For those joining this cyberspat in progress, the reference is to the Miramax coproduction Takedown, due out in 1999. Based on the book of the same title by Markoff and computer-security expert Tsutomu Shimomura (cruelly referred to as ”JAPBOY” on the hacked Times site), the film follows Shimomura’s mid-’90s pursuit of legendary hacker Mitnick and stars Russell Wong (The Joy Luck Club) and Skeet Ulrich (As Good as It Gets) as the cyberspace opponents. ”This is going to be the most reality-based hacker film ever made,” producer Brad Weston enthuses from the Wilmington, N.C., set.

The Times hackers obviously beg to differ. So did the protesters who marched on Miramax’s New York offices July 16 shouting ”Skeet’s a scab!” and who continue to agitate against the film at such sites as http://www.kevinmitnick.com. Their gripe: The film unfairly condemns Mitnick, now sitting in an L.A. jail awaiting trial for alleged computer fraud and other charges.

While ex-hacker and close Mitnick friend Alexis Kasperavicius dismisses the protesters as ”14-year-old hackers with too much testosterone,” he shares some of their concerns. Specifically, he and other Mitnick supporters claim drafts of the script they saw depicted Mitnick whistling codes into phones to make free pay-phone calls, hacking into secure government computers, and even attacking Shimomura with a trash-can lid in an alley — offenses not even Mitnick’s prosecutors accuse him of doing. ”Kevin did break some laws, but he never crashed anyone’s systems or used any software he found for personal profit,” Kasperavicius says. ”His main crime was curiosity, and the challenge of getting into these systems.”

Still, Takedown’s producers say that despite Shimomura’s presence on the set, they’ve gone out of their way to be evenhanded. ”We’ve embraced Kevin’s supporters and consulted with them,” says Weston. ”Some of them [including Kasperavicius]have even visited the set and become extras…and I think that they’ve seen that Kevin Mitnick is as fairly portrayed in the film as Shimomura.”

Mitnick himself is more preoccupied with his upcoming trial than with the prospect of being played by Skeet Ulrich, says Kasperavicius, ”though he’s really p — -ed that he’s being portrayed as this evil person.” And what does Mitnick think of the hackers who are sabotaging websites and making threats in his name? ”He has nothing to do with them, and wishes they’d stop, because it just makes him look worse.” Still, Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein might want to consider backing up his hard drive — just in case.

Hotlink to The Web Guide at http://www.ew.com

Takedown

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