WASHINGTON -- A Thousand Oaks man the federal government once labeled "the most wanted computer criminal in U.S. history" has won a long fight to renew his ham radio license and next month can resume surfing the Internet.
Kevin Mitnick, 39, served five years in federal prison for stealing software and altering data at Motorola, Novell, Nokia, Sun Microsystems and the University of Southern California.
Prosecutors accused him of causing tens of millions of dollars in damage to corporate computer networks.
Mitnick was freed in January 2000.
The terms of his probation, which expire Jan. 20, require he get government permission before using computers, software, modems or any devices that connect to the Internet. His travel and employment also are limited.
Mitnick has been allowed to use a cell phone for a couple of years and received permission this year to type a manuscript on a computer not connected to the Internet.
"Not being allowed to use the Internet is kind of like not being allowed to use a telephone," Mitnick said Thursday.
Mitnick said he is starting a firm to help companies protect themselves from computer attacks.
He said the end of his probation will allow him to do hands-on work.
Christopher Painter, deputy chief of the Justice Department's computer crime section and the former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Mitnick, said that once the former hacker's probation is over, he won't be subject to any special surveillance.
"Not any more than anyone else would," Painter said. He added that "if there's any indication that anyone is engaged in illegal conduct, we're going to look into that."
Mitnick led the FBI on a three-year manhunt that ended in 1995 when agents collared him in an apartment in Raleigh, N.C., with the help of a top security expert.
During the chase, Mitnick continued breaking into computer networks and became a cult hero among hackers.
Mitnick applied to renew his ham radio license in 1999, while still in prison.
The Federal Communications Commission ordered a hearing, citing that Mitnick at one time was "the most wanted computer criminal in U.S. history."
FCC Administrative Law Judge Richard Sippel granted the license in a ruling made public Monday.
"He started hacking as an inquisitive teenager and wound up a disgraced felon," Sippel wrote.
"There is reliable evidence that Mr. Mitnick has focused on becoming an honest, productive citizen."
Mitnick said he was pleased with the decision.
"We put on a good case to show the FCC that I'm sorry for my past actions," he said.
Mitnick, who began using ham radios when he was 13, said it cost him more than $16,000 in legal expenses to convince the FCC to renew his license. Typical renewals are free.
"It's the most expensive amateur radio license in the world," Mitnick said.
Since his release from prison, Mitnick has appeared on television, as an expert witness in the courtroom and before Congress, offering advice about computer security.
He also wrote a book, "The Art of Deception," which was published in October and describes scenarios where tricksters dupe computer network administrators into revealing security details.