02 August 2009

The Gary McKinnon tragedy exposes the lunacy of the US's war on terror

I haven't blogged about the Gary McKinnon case before, and I almost certainly should have done. Most of you will probably be familiar with the essential facts of the case; if not, I recommend the excellent article by Jon Ronson on the Guardian website.

Basically McKinnon is due to be extradited to the US to face a possible 60 years in prison for hacking into the US defence department computers - including the Pentagon network. As far as the US government is concerned, McKinnon is a terrorist who needs to be locked up as a threat to national security.

And if McKinnon really had intended to bring down the US government - planning something similar to 9/11, for example - I'd be inclined to say 'fair enough'.

But there's a small problem. Gary McKinnon is a UFO obsessive with Asperger's syndrome (an autistic spectrum disorder) who was hacking into the US network to search for information which he thought the US government was hiding about UFO propulsion systems. He had no intention of causing any harm to the US at all - he would have argued that his actions were in the public interest. (And if the information had really existed, he'd surely have been right).

He didn't find the information - presumably because it didn't exist. But what he did do was to expose a supposedly secure US military computer network as wide open to hackers. Ronson says, 'He wrote a script that searched for network administrators who'd been too lazy to change their user names from "user name" and their passwords from "password"'.

In a sane world, the US Defense Department would have said "it's a fair cop, guv", thanked McKinnon for exposing huge holes in their security arrangements, and maybe offered him a job as a cyber-security expert.

But unfortunately we - and Gary McKinnon - don't live in a sane world. We live in a world where governments go after easy targets in the name of "national security" to con the public into believing they are safe. And McKinnon is a sacrifice to that end.

As things stand, the US government is totally within its rights to demand the extradition of Gary McKinnon, and the UK government has to comply under the terms of the UK-to-US extradition agreement. It seems unlikely that the UK government will provoke a major diplomatic incident by refusing to extradite McKinnon. But there are alternative courses of action.

One option would be for McKinnon to flee the UK to another country which doesn't have an extradition treaty with the US. All the EU countries seem to have one, but Ukraine, for example, doesn't. It would be worth finding some sympathetic Ukrainians who would be prepared to take the poor guy in. Life as a Ukrainian might take some adjustment for Gary, but given that the alternative is rotting in an American jail for half a century, Eastern Europe begins to look quite attractive.

Another option would be for a part of the UK to make a unilateral declaration of independence. The Isle of Wight has had a movement for UDI for some time, usually with the rationale of making it into a tax haven like Jersey or the Isle of Man. Becoming a protectorate for people like McKinnon seems a more worthwhile reason to secede from the UK somehow.

But something radical needs to be done, otherwise a guy whose only real crime was to take The X Files a bit too seriously will be spending up to 60 years in prison. And if you think that's fair, then there really is something wrong with you.


Tiddlemouse said...

Must agree with you. I (as Gary also does) accept what he did was wrong, but the crime he unearthed is not that the UFO information he was looking for doesn't seem to exist but the apparent ease at which he could break into a supposedly secure system.

giroscoper said...

Absolutely! I should mention today's column by Boris Johnson in the Telegraph: normally Boris spends his life talking drivel but in this case he's 100% right. He makes the same point as both of us with somewhat more floridity and eloquence:

"I do not believe for a moment that the Pentagon and Nasa sustained half a million pounds’ worth of damage to their systems, as they bleatingly allege. But even if it were true, Gary McKinnon has performed a service that must be rated cheap at the price. He may be a crank, but then he is certainly no terrorist... the Americans shouldn't be threatening him with jail, they should be offering him consultancy".

Van Patten said...

This was one of the most outrageous cases I've heard of for some time. The fact that it is also a cause celebre of the Daily Mail does not make your contentions any less valid. The scary thing is that the employers of these inept network administrators possess enough firepower to level the rest of the world or whichever third world dictatorship next tickles their fancy.