Hackers, Asperger’s, and the Special Relationship

It was decided on Friday that Gary McKinnon lost his appeal against extradition. For those of you unfamilar with the case, McKinnon hacked computers within the US Department of Defence, NASA and other military branches in 2001-02; he claims to have been looking for classified files on UFOs, and that the networks weren’t password protected; the case’s prosecuters claim that $700,000 was caused and that McKinnon should be extradited to face trial in the US, where he could face up to 70 years in jail. Mckinnon was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in 2008 (believe it or not, the doctor who made the diagnosis is the cousin of the guy behind Borat and Bruno), which puts a new twist on things, as well as raising a whole bunch of other issues.

It’s a messy case – yes, a crime was committed, and yes, it needs to be answered for. However, here we run into all sorts of questions – why should a British citizen looking for the ‘truth’ about aliens by sent to face what appears to be a disproportionate sentence under an extradition treaty which, in all fairness, seems to be completely one sided? Given that this case is at least partly driven by how the US and the UK respond to terrorism in the shadow of 9/11, it will be interested to see if President Obama gets involved, especially given his attempts to show a different side of the US on the international stage. (By the way, if you want your Irony Detector to go all the way to 11, one of the reasons the extradition treaty between the UK and the US was slow to be ratified in America was because of its potential effect on IRA terrorists who fled to the States in the 80’s. One man’s terrorist…)

A key aspect of the case, and in the attempts to provide McKinnon from being extradited, is that his Asperger Syndrome is a reason for many of his illegal actions, and that the condition means he should be tried in the UK. Of course, for all this to be taken into account, we should probably be asking whether the legal system has enough knowledge and understanding of Asperger’s for this to be taken into account at trial and for a verdict to be released that isn’t prejudiced by ignorance and a lack of information (answer – probably not). Given the symptoms of Asperger’s, there’s an argument to suggest that throwing someone with the condition into a tough American jail probably isn’t the sort of thing we should be encouraging the Government to do. How far this will be taken into account remains to be seen, although it doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference at the moment.

Of course, when something like this happens, we get hit with images of hackers straight out of WarGames ("Oh noes! They’ve hacked the interweb! They can launch the nuclear missiles!"). The reality of the hacker subculture is a lot different, and there’s an argument to suggest that what McKinnon did should barely count as hacking – if the networks weren’t adequately password protected, then surely this is a case of negligence in terms of security? Apparently, the apparently ‘damages’ were the result of people having to fix what shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place. Of course, accessing the networks was a crime, but let’s just say the image of an evil hacker making sport of sensitive Government networks isn’t all that accurate (and, for what it’s worth, if you’re interested in the whole hacking thing, check out The Cuckoo’s Egg by Cliff Stoll and The Hacker Crackdown by Bruce Sterling – the latter is available online here).

And, last but not least, it should always be remembered that McKinnon wasn’t hacking networks to launch a cyberterrorism attack, he was looking for the truth about UFO’s. And antigravity technology. And free energy. In other words, real fringe subjects; we’re not exactly talking Osama Bin Laden here. The Disclosure Project was one of the reasons McKinnon started looking for classified documents in the first place; we’re crossing into the realms of the conspiracy theory here, and it’ll be interesting to see how the case develops in relation to conspiracy culture (I would check out a few conspiracy websites to see what the buzz is, but last time I did that, I couldn’t help but notice a disproportionate number of holocaust deniers – not many, but enough to get me twitchy. I love conspiracy theories as stories, but please don’t let me get trapped in a lift with conspiracy theorists). Of course, the birther theory that’s doing the rounds could point to a resurgance of paranoia in American culture (albeit one that’s being manipulated for political ends), so it could be interesting to see where this goes in terms of this angle.

Personally, I’m of the opinion that McKinnon should be tried and sentenced in the UK, although my legal opinion probably isn’t worth the pixels it’s written in. What makes the case interesting, and potentially an abuse of McKinnon’s human rights, is that it touches on so many issues that aren’t widely understood or accepted – on their own, Asperger’s, computer hacking and conspiracism are complex subjects; this case brings all of them together in one great big mess. In the light of this, and in the light of US posturing and an apparent reluctance on the behalf of the British Government to look after the interests of its citizens, it’ll be interesting – and incredibly worrying – to see how this all pans out…


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