Police seize information super-highway `robber'

The most wanted hacker in America, who delighted in teasing powerful corporations and computer security experts, was arrested in North Carolina yesterday after a pursuit lasting two years.

Kevin Mitnick, 31, is reported to have stolen more than 20,000 credit card numbers, some belonging to the best-known millionaires in Silicon Valley, and thousands of data files.

He is wanted by courts in California for breach of probation after he stopped attending a programme for the treatment of computer addiction following his release from prison for earlier hacking charges in 1990.

Mr Mitnick has been charged with illegal use of a telephone access device and computer fraud.

They carry penalties of up to 25 years in prison, and fines of $250,000 (£160,000).

The credit card numbers he allegedly stole belonged to the customers of a company that provides Internet access for the techno-lite of the west coast, and he used the computer space belonging to a lobby group called Computers, Freedom and Privacy to store stolen programmes for controlling cellular phones.

His downfall came after he teased a computer security expert in San Diego by breaking into his home computer on Christmas Day, using a technique called protocol spoofing. The machine was linked to the network at the office, which allowed Mr Mitnick to steal files related to computer security. He left mocking, distorted messages on his voice mail.

The victim, Tsutomu Shimomura, 30, monitored the intrusions and tracked Mr Mitnick's depredations on the Internet for almost two months. Mr Mitnick was traced to a cellular telephone near Raleigh, North Carolina.

Mr Shimomura helped FBI agents to locate the building from which the cellular phone was being used, and staked it out for 48 hours before Mr Mitnick was arrested on Wednesday. At his court appearance, Mr Mitnick bowed to Mr Shimomura and said: "I respect your skills."

As part of their duel, Mr Shimomura had posted on the Internet digitised recordings of the messages Mr Mitnick had left on his voice mail. According to the New York Times, Mr Mitnick may have had accomplices, possibly from Israel. In 1989, Mr Mitnick was convicted for the theft of $1m (£645,000) of software from the Digital Equipment Corporation and sentenced to one year's jail.