Computer crime: He may be a nerd, but he's ours

Hacker who hunted for UFOs is a wanted alien in his own right
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The Independent Online

For two years Gary McKinnon, an unemployed Scotsman armed with only some spliffs, a few beers, and a dial-up internet connection, went looking for beings of superior intelligence. He couldn't find them. Instead, he found the US Military-Industrial Complex, an altogether different grade of brain.

And, after he'd found them, and fooled around inside their computer systems for a few years, he got sloppy. And so, in turn, he was found in Crouch End, north London, by the US Justice Department, or rather its surrogates in the UK, the Home Office's then National Hi-Tech Crime Unit. In a scene reminiscent of so many extra-terrestrial fantasies of people like Mr McKinnon, one morning in November 2002, they appeared at the foot of his bed – and abducted him. Using their high-speed craft with its mysterious, revolving light on top, they carried him off to Holloway Road police station and probed him for his innermost secrets. McKinnon ("I'm only a little nerd") was powerless to resist.

And when they returned him to his own world, he was a changed man. No longer free to come and go without reporting every evening at a police station; no longer allowed near a computer with an internet connection; and no longer the anonymous obsessive, whiling away the days burrowing deep into the networks of the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Defense Department. He was now that most alien of creatures: the cause célèbre. And, after the law lords' decision on Wednesday to extradite him to the US to face trial, and possibly a lengthy jail sentence, he is that even rarer phenomenon: the transatlantic cause célèbre.

To civil liberty groups, McKinnon is a UFO believer whose enthusiasm got the better of his admittedly limited judgement, and whose chief crime was mere electronic trespass. He is just a nut, to whom a superpower's sledgehammer is now being unnecessarily – and vindictively – applied.

The Americans see things rather differently. His actions were, said one US prosecutor, "the biggest military computer hack of all time". According to the Justice Department indictment, he, among other things, "broke into the computer network at the Earle Naval Weapons Station, stealing computer passwords, and shutting down the network in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks"; and he caused "approximately $900,000 [£450,000] in damages to computers".

This month, McKinnon will head to the European Court of Human Rights for his last hope of avoiding the plane ride west. The Americans will fight him all the way. They want his ass. And, after they've finished with it, McKinnon might then be taking it into the US prison system. You can see why he's worried.