For the man at the centre of today's extradition drama, the announcement that he will not be facing a trial in the United States is the first glimmer of hope Gary McKinnon has received since he was first arrested in February 2002 on hacking charges.
For the past ten years the 46-year-old north Londoner has been virtually housebound and cut of from the outside world. Friends say the former hacker has been consumed by the threat of extradition to the point where it has dominated his life. “It's al he's ever been able to think about for the last ten years,” one said. “Now there's a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Under a court order he has been forbidden from accessing any computers for the duration of his legal fight. It's a rather sobering thought to consider that when McKinnon was last online, Twitter didn't exist, the iPhone was still in Apple's R&D labs and broadband internet had only just become available.
Many cyber security experts often advocate for low level hackers to be rehabilitated and hired by governments to defend their networks rather than be imprisoned. But even if Mr McKinnon was offered a job in the cyber industry, he would have to catch up on ten years worth of technological development.
With the extradition proceedings halted McKinnon will have to wait to hear whether the Director for Public Prosecutions decides to bring a separate case against him in Britain. Doing so would likely only be possible if US prosecutors hand over vital evidence of his intrusion – though McKinnon no longer denies doing the crime he is accused of. Nonetheless he will soon be afforded a level of personal freedom that has been denied to him for the last ten years.
It's unlikely he'll make much of a song and dance about that new found freedom. With his mother Janis at the forefront of the campaign to keep him in the country, the former computer hacker is rarely seen in public. The Independent interviewed him in 2008, one of the few times he chose to meet with the press. His Aspergers had yet to be diagnosed but he came across as a polite, if somewhat socially uncomfortable, computer geek with a fascination for conspiracy theories and extra-terrestrial life.
At the time he admitted that he pursued his hacking with the kind of obessional zeal that is commonplace among those with the tunnel vision that Aspergers often brings. Using little more than a single computer and a dial-up modem, Mr McKinnon was able to break into a string of Pentagon and Nasa computers from his north London bedsit, largely because employees had left default passwords on their accounts. He rarely left his room to wash and admits he was careless, barely bothering to conceal his own identity as he spent hours trawling through US government computers. When the Americans came looking for him, they found him with ease.
In interviews he always insisted that his hacks were a harmless attempt to find evidence of extra-terrestrial life and highlight how ineffectual the American government’s cyber security was. He claims the Americans came after him because exposed embarrassing security loopholes.
The Americans saw things differently. The hacks, which occurred between March 2001 and February 2002, coincided with the heightened paranoia following the 11 September attacks. According to the indictment against him, McKinnon reportedly penetrated 81 military and 16 Nasa computers, stole documents and passwords, and even managed to shut down an entire Washington-based military network for 24 hours, causing $700,000 (£350,000) worth of damage. Under America’s strict anti-cyber hacking laws, he faced the possibility of up to 60 years in prison.
As the extradition battle continued his mental health rapidly deteriorated. A recent medical report by three Home Office appointed psychiatrists warned that his severe depression meant it was very likely Mr McKinnon would attempt suicide if he was sent to the United States.
Wiping tears of joy from her eyes, his mother Janis Sharpe yesterday described the effect the last ten years had had on her son.
He's a really good musician but hasn't touched an instrument for years,” she said. “He isn't allowed to go online, so he didn't have an outlet. You saw him shut down and slow down. Just the waste of talent.”
She added: “I hope he'll feel the last ten yeas and seven months has brought about something that'll help others. I hope that will give him self respect because he needs confidence.”
It's clear that while Gary McKinnon is now be safe from extradition to the United States, he still has a long way to go before normal life can resume.
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