Gary McKinnon was accused of hacking into 97 United States military and NASA computers over a 13-month period between February 2001 and March 2002, at the house of his girlfriend’s aunt in London, using the name ‘Solo’.
In March 2002 Glasgow-born McKinnon was arrested by police at his dingy flat in Wood Green, north London. Scotland Yard detectives were acting on allegations from the Americans that he had hacked into US military computer systems in an attempt to bring them down.
He allegedly immobilized sensitive systems in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. McKinnon admits hacking into US computers but says he had been on a “moral crusade” to find classified documents about Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs).
He got his first computer when he was 14 years old. Three years later he left school and became a hairdresser. But in the early 1990s friends convinced him to get a qualification in computers.
After completing a course he started doing contract work in the computing field.
Gary McKinnon has stipulated that he breached several military networks in search of suspected UFO data. In the process, he caused no damage; inserted no malware; nor demanded any payments. Granted McKinnon had no right to access this data but his crime was not much worse than a kid who took a car for a joyride.
Grand theft auto this was not, prosecutorial hyperbole notwithstanding. Although the US government claims it cost $700, 000 to repair damage caused by McKinnon’s intrusion, this smells like an exaggerated figure. It is more likely that some embarrassed network administrators requested an array of expensive software upgrades that should have been installed in the first place. If he was convicted in the US he could face up to 70 years in prison.
In August 2008 McKinnon was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome – a form of autism after an expert in autism watched him in a television interview and contacted his solicitor. The initial hunch was confirmed by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a leader in the field. Asperger’s syndrome sufferers commonly become obsessed with certain activities and interests and are known to have a level of social naiveté when it comes to evaluating the consequences of their actions. Prof Baron-Cohen said this was consistent with McKinnon’s “obsessive search for truth”.
McKinnon said that he found a document entitled “non-terrestrial officers”. This excel sheet, he explained, had the ranks and names of unknown individuals. Furthermore, McKinnon went on to say, another sheet had tabs for “material transfers between ships”.
When he tried to search for the names of the ships – approximately eight to 10 in total – he was unable to come across anything that mentioned them (at least in public), reinforcing his assessment that these were part of a covert and non-terrestrial US initiative. He also saw ship-to-ship transfers of vessels not in the U.S. military inventory, and a high-resolution photograph, taken from space, of a smooth, cigar-shaped craft.
In 2012, Theresa May, the UK’s home secretary, said that he would not be sent to the US, justifying this decision on human rights grounds. She said at the time: “Mr. McKinnon is accused of serious crimes. But there is also no doubt that he is seriously ill. He has Asperger’s syndrome and suffers from depressive illness. “The legal question before me is now whether the extent of that illness is sufficient to preclude extradition.”
“After careful consideration of all of the relevant material, I have concluded that McKinnon’s extradition would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that a decision to extradite would be incompatible with his human rights.” In a BBC interview in 2005 he said: “I found out that the US military use Windows and having realized this, I assumed it would probably be an easy hack if they hadn’t secured it properly.”, he said.
Using commercially available software, McKinnon probed dozens of US military and government networks. He found many machines without adequate passwords or firewall protection. So he simply hacked into the unprotected system.
In August 2009, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour released an online single, “Chicago – Change the World”, on which he sang and played guitar, bass and keyboards, to promote awareness of McKinnon’s plight. A re-titled cover of the Graham Nash song “Chicago”, it featured Chrissie Hynde and Bob Geldof, plus McKinnon himself. It was produced by long-time Pink Floyd collaborator Chris Thomas and was made with Nash’s support.
- Asperger syndrome (AS), also known as Asperger’s, was previously considered a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. The syndrome is no longer recognised as a diagnosis in itself, having been merged with other disorders into autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It was considered to differ from other diagnoses that were merged into ASD by relatively unimpaired spoken language and intelligence. The syndrome was named after the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger, who, in 1944, described children in his care who struggled to form friendships, did not understand others’ gestures or feelings, engaged in one-sided conversations about their favourite interests, and were clumsy. In 1994, the diagnosis of Asperger’s was included in the fourth edition (DSM-IV) of the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; with the publication of DSM-5 in 2013 the diagnosis was removed, and the symptoms are now included within autism spectrum disorder along with classic autism and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). It was similarly merged into autism spectrum disorder in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as of 2021. [Back]
- Sir Simon Philip Baron-Cohen FBA FBPsS FMedSci (born 15 August 1958) is a British clinical psychologist and professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge. He is the director of the university’s Autism Research Centre and a Fellow of Trinity College. In 1985, Baron-Cohen formulated the mind-blindness theory of autism, the evidence for which he collated and published in 1995. In 1997, he formulated the foetal sex steroid theory of autism, the key test of which was published in 2015.He has also made major contributions to the fields of typical cognitive sex differences, autism prevalence and screening, autism genetics, autism neuroimaging, autism and technical ability, and synaesthesia. Baron-Cohen was knighted in the 2021 New Year Honours for services to autistic people. [Back]
- Theresa Mary, Lady May (born October 1, 1956) is a British politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Conservative Party from 2016 to 2019. She previously served in David Cameron’s cabinet as Home Secretary from 2010 to 2016, and has been Member of Parliament (MP) for Maidenhead in Berkshire since 1997. May is the UK’s second female prime minister after Margaret Thatcher, and is the first woman to hold two of the Great Offices of State. Ideologically, May identifies herself as a one-nation conservative. [Back]
- Christopher P. Thomas (born January 13, 1947 in Perivale, Middlesex, England) is an English record producer who has worked extensively with the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Procol Harum, Roxy Music, Badfinger, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Pulp and the Pretenders. He has also produced breakthrough albums for the Sex Pistols, the Climax Blues Band and INXS. [Back]