Hacker McKinnon looks to Europe to avoid extradition

Self-confessed hacker Gary McKinnon ...

Self-confessed hacker Gary McKinnon lost his six-year battle to avoid standing trial in the US for hacking into military databases when the Law Lords rejected his appeal against extradition to the US.

US prosecutors allege that McKinnon gained unauthorised entry to 97 computers belonging to the US army, navy, air force and Nasa between February 2001 and March 2002, and scanned another 73,000 computer systems hoping to enter them as well. They further allege he caused £350,000 worth of damage.

McKinnon admitted in a police interview that he hacked into federal computer systems, but denied causing damage on the scale claimed.

Five law lords, in the UK's highest court, unanimously decided that a plea bargain offered to McKinnon by US officials was not coercive and an abuse of the extradition process. McKinnon, 42, an unemployed systems administrator, now faces extradition to the US and charges that carry a penalty of up to 60 years.

Speaking to Computer Weekly exclusively soon after the decision, Mckinnon said he was dissapointed with his country and hoped that the European Court of Human Rights would have a different view.

McKinnon's solicitors, Kaim Todner, said in a statement that it believed the British government declined to prosecute McKinnon, freeing the way for the US government to make an example of him. "The consequences he faces if extradited are both disproporationate and intolerable," the firm said.

In a case decided recently, a New Zealand court fined a teenage hacker £5000 for using a 1.3 million-PC botnet to skim millions from back accounts.

So far the British taxpayer has paid all costs related to the McKinnon case, including those of the US government. Costs were estimated at close to £900,000.

Kaim Todner is now trying to delay McKinnon's extradition as it plans to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights. It hopes the Strasbourg court will hear the appeal on the grounds that the US abused the extradition process and threatened McKinnon, and that the US might try him in a military rather than civilian court.

McKinnon started hacking in 1999. He told Computer Weekly he was looking for evidence of extraterrestrial beings and alien energy technology, which he believed the US government was hiding. Had he found it, he "was going to blow it to the world's press", he said. US official were reported describing McKinnon as the biggest and most dangerous military hacker of all time.

It was child's play to get into US military systems, McKinnon said. Many were using blank or default passwords to access their servers' Netbios operating system. This allowed the former systems administrator to gain administrator privileges easily. Once in he could search for files, see who else was on the network, and even reset passwords and user privileges.

He admitted writing Perl scripts to harvest passwords, and to using password crackers to get into more protected systems. Once he was inside a network, especially a military network, McKinnon found that other computer systems considered him a trusted user. This was how he was able to get into the Pentagon's network. "It was really by accident," he said.

McKinnon said he was detected after he he got lazy, leaving messages on federal systems. Police from the former National Hi-Tech Crime Unit arrested him in November 2002, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He has never been charged with hacking offences in the UK.

Time Line

1999 - Gary McKinnon starts searching for evidence that the US government is hiding knowledge of extra-terrestrial beings and technology.

February 2001 to March 2002 - US officials discover and track McKinnon's hacking activities.

11 September 2001 - Terrorists crash aeroplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

November 2002 - US officials indict McKinnon National High Tech Crime Unit police arrest McKinnon.

8 June 2005 - McKinnon bailed by Bow Street magistrates' court.

27 July 2005 - Extradition hearing scheduled.

14 February 2006 - Bow Street magistrate's court starts McKinnon's extradition hearing.

10 May 2006 - Judge agrees to extradite McKinnon.

4 July 2006 - Home Secretary John Reid agrees to extradite McKinnon.

3 April 2007 - McKinnon loses High Court appeal against extradition decision.

31 July 2007 - Law Lords agree to hear whether the US was coercive in seeking a plea bargain deal that required McKinnon to give up his right to an extradition hearing.

17 June 2008 - Law Lords hear argument.

30 July 2008 - Law Lords decide against McKinnon.




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