It was June 1, 1990, and KIIS-FM was running a competition for callers to win a new Porsche 944 S2. All they had to do was be caller No. 102. However, not everyone who tried to call made it through to the station. A 25-year-old hacker named Kevin Poulsen had tapped into all 25 phone lines and blocked every receiving call but his own. He would go on to win the Porsche under the name Michael B. Peters.
While Poulsen is best known for his KIIS hack, he had a more serious and expansive prior history of cyber intrusions.
Before the Porsche
Kevin Poulsen was born in Pasadena, California, in 1965. From early on, he had a gift for computers — specifically hacking. As he began to get more comfortable pushing the envelope, this hobby-turned-obsession would end up getting him into trouble with law enforcement and The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Stanford Research Institute
The Stanford Research Institute (SRI) — now dubbed SRI International — is a think tank that has been associated with aiding the government in military projects. Poulsen and his accomplice, Ronald Austin, hacked into SRI, along with the Advance Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), for fun. In 1983, Poulsen and Austin were taken into custody. Austin was charged with 14 counts of malicious access but served only two months in custody. Because Poulsen was just 17 years old, he wasn’t charged and walked away clean.
Instead of pressing further charges and punishing Poulsen, SRI chose to employ him to teach the military how to protect classified information. However, in 1988, a storage facility owner investigated a unit with a payment that was 100 days late and immediately called the police. The authorities discovered missing boxes of stolen computing devices, fake ID’s and birth certificates. When they checked the camera footage, they saw that Poulsen was the culprit, and several warrants were issued against him. He denied all claims.
During his time at SRI, Poulsen repeatedly broke into a facility owned by Pacific Bell — a telephone service company located in San Jose — to steal everything from passwords to manuals. In 1987, he received access codes to the MASNET Computer Network — a network for communication between the Monetary Authority of Singapore and third parties — and stole the phone number of Ferdinand Marcos, former president of the Philippines. The FBI would later claim this compromised their wiretaps on Marcos. When Poulsen noticed the authorities beginning to pursue him, he proceeded to go on the run for 17 months.
Government wiretapping and hacking
During this time, Poulsen proceeded to hack into the FBI’s network and “revealed wiretap details for mobsters, foreign politicians and even the American Civil Liberties Union,” according to The Infographics Show. He leaked this information to the public, and they were outraged at what he revealed.
To add to his growing list of allegations, Poulsen went on to block all callers from entering to win radio prizes. This is when he became infamous for winning a Porsche. However, he actually “won” two Porsches, several vacations and $20,000 from various stations.
Unsolved Mysteries and Poulsen’s downfall
In 1990, NBC’s show “Unsolved Mysteries” aired a special about Kevin Poulsen and had an open line for tips on his location. A year later, a manager at Hughes market in Los Angeles recognized Poulsen from FBI photos and immediately contacted the authorities. The FBI waited at the market the following day, and when Poulsen arrived, they took him into custody.
Two years after he was caught, Poulsen had 19 indictments filed against him, ranging from conspiracy to money laundering. According to a Los Angeles Times article, Poulsen faced “a maximum of 100 years in prison, heaped on top of the potential 37 in the San Jose case, and fines of nearly $5 million.”
Poulsen spent five years in custody before being released on probation. The judge in the matter held him that long to give the FBI time to build their case against him so they could ensure a maximum sentence and make an example out of him. In the end, Poulsen was charged with only minor crimes like money laundering and wire fraud and wasn’t allowed access to a computer for three years.
Where Poulsen is now
These days, Kevin Poulsen is a respected WIRED journalist and has spoken at many conferences about cybersecurity and hacker threats. In 2006, he was able to track hundreds of sex offenders on Myspace that were attempting to connect with minors, which helped bring them to justice. He remains an asset to not only businesses, but the U.S. government, as well.