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'He was unlucky. He wasn't even a very good hacker'

Peter Warren on how Gary McKinnon fell foul of a US security specialist called 'Ed the Fed'

This week, for the first time in 12 years, Gary McKinnon got lucky, when the Home Secretary Theresa May announced that she would not allow him to be extradited to the US because of his poor health. For McKinnon the relief was palpable: May's decision, he said, was a liberation from "living with a dark and hollow feeling" for more than a decade since his arrest in March 2002.

But Gary McKinnon's bad luck actually started much earlier than that, and before he ever ventured onto the US defence network in February 2001. His problems started when he was spotted on the fringes of a separate sweep into much more serious hackers, conducted by UK police.

McKinnon describes himself as a bumbling computer nerd. He's not wrong. The truth is that he was clumsy: he was first picked up during a "penetration" IT security test run by an internet provider called Telewest. (A penetration test is an exercise carried out by computer security experts to find a suspected weakness in a company's systems.)

The experts, working with Surrey Police, quickly found that a "backdoor" in the system had been deliberately left open by a Telewest engineer for remote maintenance, and that this had been discovered by hackers who shared news of its existence.

"Once we knew about the backdoor we just sat on it and watched," recalls one of the investigators. "There was a parade of hackers coming through and using the system to hide their tracks – and McKinnon was one of those."

But he wasn't considered a major player. There were "a lot of junior 'bollocksy' people who were just kicking around", the investigator says. "McKinnon was in [that] group."

The investigators back up McKinnon's claim that he was a bumbling nerd. The text of the chat logs showed him to be a very junior hacker, one who was asking for information all the time. His hacking handle was "Solo".

When I met him – I carried out the first interview with him after his arrest in his flat in Bounds Green, London – he was a worried and nervous man, obsessed with the idea that he would be raped in a US prison. And if McKinnon was paranoid then, another 10 years of worry must have eroded his mental health even more.