Feature

Extraditing an autistic hacker

Gary McKinnon, a 43-year-old Scot with Asperger’s syndrome, hacked into nearly 100 Pentagon and NASA computers and now faces extradition to the U.S. to stand trial.

The U.S. wants to put “Rain Man” behind bars, said the London Independent in an editorial. Gary McKinnon, a 43-year-old Scot, freely admits that he hacked into nearly 100 Pentagon and NASA computers between 1999 and 2002, and this week, the British High Court ruled that he could be extradited to stand trial in the U.S on charges of cyberterrorism. But McKinnon is no terrorist. “He did no vandalism, created no viruses, stole nothing, and did not act with malicious intent.” McKinnon suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that often leads to obsessive-compulsive behavior. In McKinnon’s case, the obsession is UFOs. He was convinced that the U.S. government was conspiring with oil companies to hide evidence of alien spacecraft because the UFOs use a renewable energy source that would render oil obsolete. Just like Matthew Broderick’s character in WarGames—McKinnon’s favorite movie—he used his dial-up modem to hack into U.S. government mainframes.

McKinnon is “a classic British nut job,” said London Mayor Boris Johnson in the London Daily Telegraph. As such, he ought to be “a prime candidate for the protection of the government.” But instead, Home Secretary Alan Johnson declined to intervene, saying he lacked the authority to deny extradition. That’s nonsense, of course. The extradition treaty is not a “catapult that pings people across the Atlantic whenever the Americans require.” The Pentagon and NASA “bleatingly allege” that McKinnon shut down dozens of their computers, costing them more than $750,000. Even if that’s true, I submit that he did them a service by exposing the weaknesses in their systems. “Just imagine if America’s defense establishment had commissioned IT consultants to probe their systems as exhaustively as Gary McKinnon.” The contract would have been worth far more than the U.S. government’s supposed loss.

In any event, the Americans “have never provided a shred of evidence to back up their claim” of damages, said the Glasgow Daily Record. Yet under the extradition treaty, passed in a rush after 9/11, they don’t have to. “This one-sided agreement appears to mean that Britain will meekly hand over anyone the Americans ask for without going to the trouble of establishing that they have actually done anything wrong.” American courts, by contrast, routinely deny British extradition requests—even for cases in which actual harm was done to people, not just to computers. British authorities have certified that McKinnon’s judgment is impaired because of his handicap. That alone should be reason enough to pardon him.

Even if the Americans have a right to prosecute McKinnon, said the Edinburgh Scotland on Sunday, “it is hard to see why” they want to. Jailing him would hardly make the U.S. safer. America’s real enemies are not Scottish geeks but Islamist suicide bombers. It looks suspiciously as though the Americans simply want to get back at McKinnon for wounding their pride. He did, after all, leave snarky messages on military computers saying, “Your security is crap.” But the U.S. should just let it go. “Powerful nations should be above petty revenge.”

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