This week,TechCrunch is asking readers if they should prosecute a hacker caught for allegedly defacing their site. "If enough readers vote yes, there could be another Gary McKinnon type battle as the hacker could be extradited to the US for his trial," TechCrunch posted.
The Gary McKinnon case is one I've been following closely, and it sheds interesting light on the battles over computer crimes. Here's what happened. 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 65,000 government machines, and discovered glaring security flaws on 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 secret files and passwords. At one point, he brought down the US Army’s entire Washington network, over 2000 computers, for 24 hours. It remains, as one U.S. attorney put it, “the biggest military hack of all time.”
But despite his expertise, Solo didn’t cover his tracks well enough. He was soon traced to a small apartment in London. On March 27th of 2002, the UK 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 moment—he spent his days writing brooding electronic music, and indulging his obsession with UFOs. In fact, he claims that aliens are the reason he was accessing classified computers. “I knew that governments suppressed antigravity, UFO-related technologies, free energy or what they call zero-point energy,” he explained. “This should not be kept hidden from the public when pensioners can't pay their fuel bills.”
He got caught just as he was downloading a photo from Johnson’s Space Center of what he believed to be a UFO. UK officials told McKinnon he'd probably get off with community service. But the Feds are mortified that this boy-man pulled off the hack of the century, and they’re making him pay. McKinnon faces extradition to the United States under a controversial treaty that could land him in prison for 70 years. Now rock stars, human rights activists, and members of parliament are racing to free Gary. The reason: he has Asperger Syndrome.
Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge (and cousin of Sacha), diagnosed McKinnon with Asperger’s, a mysterious form of autism that's now in the public eye. Baron-Cohen released a report in McKinnon defense, saying “Mr. McKinnon actually poses no harm to society as he was motivated by an altruistic pursuit of the truth,” he wrote. “His emotional age or social intelligence is at the level of a child, even if his intelligence is systemizing at an advanced level. If Gary McKinnon is sent to the U.S. I fear he will kill himself.”
The so-called "Geek Defense" is spreading. In August, Viachelav Berkovich, a 34-year-old Russian immigrant in the United States diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, received a reduced sentence after being convicted of a hacking into a trucking company in California. Also last year, a defense witness for Hans Reiser, a computer programmer convicted of brutally murdering his wife, testified that Reiser might have Asperger’s. Defense attorneys also used the Asperger’s defense for Lisa Brown, a 22-year-old convicted of murdering her mother. “Someone with Asperger’s syndrome could still plan an act but, because of deficiencies in their social imagination, might be unable to see what the consequences of those actions might be,” a psychiatrist said of Brown, who received a life sentence regardless. Lawyers for Albert Gonzalez, the hacker convicted in the massive TJX identity theft case, are also now wielding the Asperger's defense.
David Kushner is the author of many books, including Masters of Doom, Jonny Magic & the Card Shark Kids, Levittown, The Bones of Marianna, and Alligator Candy. A contributing editor of Rolling Stone, he has written for publications including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine.