Today the UK government announced that it won't allow hacker Gary McKinnon to be extradited to the United States, where he was supposed to stand trial for invading thousands of U.S. government computers.
McKinnon was diagnosed in recent years with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, and his supporters have argued that his condition partly explains his criminal behavior.
The UK home secretary, Theresa May, revoked the extradition order on human rights grounds, saying that McKinnon's Asperger's and depression would make him a risk to himself if he ended up in a U.S. jail. "After careful consideration of all of the relevant material, I have concluded that Mr. McKinnon's extradition would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that a decision to extradite would be incompatible with Mr. McKinnon's human rights," she told MPs.
In a 2011 cover story for IEEE Spectrum, David Kushner told the whole bizarre tale of McKinnon's crimes and diagnosis. McKinnon has publicly admitted that he hacked into thousands of computers belonging to NASA and the Department of Defense in 2001 and 2002. The U.S. government claims that McKinnon did more than $700 000 worth of damage and says he put national security at risk. The government's charges against him carried a sentence of up to 70 years.
But in a weird twist, McKinnon's hacks were motivated by his obsession with aliens. From Kushner's article:
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.
McKinnon was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome during the long years that he's been fighting the extradition order. He has become a cause celebre for the autism community, with some supporters arguing that his obsessive quest to discover alien secrets and his social naivete, which may have caused him to ignore the potential consequences of his actions, are essentially symptoms of Asperger's.
McKinnon could still stand trial in Britain. May said the director of public prosecutions will make the decision on that.
Image: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Eliza Strickland is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum, where she covers AI, biomedical engineering, and other topics. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.