A few months after the World Trade Center attacks, a strange message appeared on a U.S. Army computer: “Your security system is crap,” it read. “I am Solo. I will continue to disrupt at the highest levels.”
Solo scanned thousands of U.S. government machines and discovered glaring security flaws in many of them. Between February 2001 and March 2002, Solo broke into almost a hundred PCs within the Army, Navy, Air Force, NASA, and the Department of Defense. He surfed around for months, copying files and passwords. At one point he brought down the U.S. Army’s entire Washington, D.C., network, taking about 2000 computers out of service for three days. U.S. attorney Paul McNulty called his campaign “the biggest military computer hack of all time.”
But despite his expertise, Solo didn’t cover his tracks. He was soon traced to a small apartment in London. In March 2002, the United Kingdom’s National Hi-Tech Crime Unit arrested Gary McKinnon, a quiet 36-year-old Scot with elfin features and Spock-like upswept eyebrows. He’d been a systems administrator, but he didn’t have a job at the time of his arrest; he spent his days indulging his obsession with UFOs.
In fact, McKinnon claimed that UFOs were the reason for his hack. Convinced that the government was hiding alien antigravity devices and advanced energy technologies, he planned to find and release the information for the benefit of humanity. He said his intrusion was detected just as he was downloading a photo from NASA’s Johnson Space Center of what he believed to be a UFO.
Despite the outlandishness of his claims, McKinnon now faces extradition to the United States under a controversial treaty that could land him in prison for years—and possibly for the rest of his life. The case has transformed McKinnon into a cause célèbre. Supporters have rallied outside Parliament with picket signs. There are “Free Gary” websites, T-shirts, posters. Rock star David Gilmour, the former guitarist for Pink Floyd, even recorded a benefit song in his honor.
Why the spectacle? McKinnon has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. The range of conditions known as autism spectrum disorders currently affects 1 out of 110 American children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers say that diagnoses of these problems are increasing faster than those of any other developmental disorder. Medical researchers still don’t understand the cause and are nowhere near a cure.
People with Asperger’s are often highly intelligent, and many have an accomplished understanding of complex systems, causing researchers to study a possible link between autism and engineering. But Asperger’s sufferers have severe difficulty reading social cues and grasping the impact of their often-obsessive behavior. “There have been an inordinate number of young men with Asperger’s who have gotten in trouble with the law,” says autism expert Rhea Paul of the Yale School of Medicine Child Study Center. “It’s difficult for them to intuit moral decisions that may come more easily to others,” she says. McKinnon’s lawyers argue that his criminal behavior was a result of his disorder, and they have asked courts to judge him with leniency as a result.
Meanwhile, a debate is raging over the role of Asperger’s in his crime. Former UK prime minister Gordon Brown is among those who have said that McKinnon deserves sympathy. Others believe the disorder does not merit a lesser sentence. “There is a need for stronger penalties for hackers,” says Amit Yoran, former National Cyber Security Division director within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “Without consequences for people’s actions, an entire underpinning of modern society is at risk.”
McKinnon’s case raises a new and provocative question: Could Asperger’s become the insanity defense for the hackers of the digital age?