Gary was unlucky. He's not even a good hacker

How the self-confessed 'computer nerd' fell foul of US security specialist 'Ed the Fed'

Related Topics

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. It began before he ever ventured on to 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 British police.

McKinnon describes himself as a bumbling computer nerd. He's not wrong. His exploits were first discovered, he told an audience in 2006, because he had miscalculated the time zone when setting up his remote-control hacking software.

The truth is a little more clumsy than even that. McKinnon was first picked up during an IT "penetration" test run for an internet provider called Telewest. 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," said 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."

The parade proved a rich source of information to the investigators, because the hackers sat inside the gateway and used it to share information with each other using chatroom software.

"We recorded the chat logs and keystrokes," the investigator explained, "and we grouped their activity into three different parts: information relating to the initial hack on a recruitment company; information relating to a hack into a number of top financial services organisations; a lot of junior 'bollocksy' people who were just kicking around. McKinnon was in the last group."

Indeed, 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 who was asking for information all of the time .

"He was asking for passwords to US systems and ways to access them that were common knowledge to the other hackers that were in there," said the investigator. "He certainly did not hack an FBI database, he got his information from other hackers."

Nonetheless, McKinnon was unlucky enough to be doing so while he was being watched – and he was subsequently tracked as he made his way through the US systems. The investigators back up McKinnon's version of events: that he wrote a few lines of computer code to look through the US military computers for blank admin and password fields.

These were the same claims that McKinnon made to me when I carried out the first interview with him after his arrest. He was at pains to stress that what he had done was not that difficult.

"McKinnon was just looking for information and the way the US systems were set up made it easy for him," the investigator said. "On one of the networks he went on there were 10,000 computers that had all been configured... the same."

It was here that McKinnon's misfortune began again: the hackers were divided up into six "intelligence packages" sent to different police forces and organisations.

Living in London, he was passed to the Met – so his snooping on US defence computers brought him under the ambit of the National High-Tech Crime Unit (now disbanded). The unit passed the package on to the US Embassy at a time when the US was desperate to demonstrate it was taking a hard line on hacking.

At the US Embassy the package landed on the desk of Ed Gibson, a trained lawyer, FBI liaison and computer security specialist known affectionately in the computer industry as "Ed the Fed". Bad news for McKinnon. Meanwhile, the hackers who had stolen funds from banks and credit-card companies saw their cases quietly dropped. That left McKinnon uncomfortably exposed.

I first heard of McKinnon when I was at the National High-Tech Crime Unit, carrying out research for a book. I heard mention that the unit was about to arrest a Scottish hacker by the name of McKinnon who had been working his way through US defence computers. Two weeks later McKinnon was arrested and I was rung by fellow hackers to ask if I would like to interview him.

When I met him he was a very 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. Gary McKinnon has been punished enough.

Peter Warren is an investigative journalist specialising in security, and Chairman of the Cyber Security Research Institute

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Election catch-up: I’m not saying the Ed stone is bad – it is so terrible I am lost for words

John Rentoul

Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living