Early on Tuesday, October 16, BBC News reported that extradition of computer hacker, Gary McKinnon, was denied by the British government. Home Secretary Theresa May went on record to say that even in light of his incredible crimes, she has “…no doubt that he is seriously ill. There is such a high risk of him ending his own life that a decision to extradite would be incompatible with his human rights.”
Gary McKinnon, 46, has admitted to hacking into a variety of military computer networks, including NASA and the Pentagon. While it appears he is the man behind the greatest military hack in history, McKinnon’s mental health has also been brought into the forefront. He claimed the reasons behind the hack was not a political or ideological agenda, but that he wanted to prove the United States government was concealing the existence of aliens. After his arrest, he also admitted he suffered from Aspergers Syndrome and depression, making many security experts wary of the validity behind his mental illness.
“Anytime you have something of this magnitude — when an ally refuses extradition, it’s a concern,” states Jeffrey A. Hawkins, Manager of American Military University’s Strategic Initiatives in the Private Security Sector. “You would think they would have allowed extradition knowing our judicial system. While the hacker’s motives are always in question, and always a consideration, why this would be a factor is not really understandable. We would without question carry out a mental evaluation as a course of prosecution.”
“This is a tough call on both sides of the argument,” says cybersecurity expert Neal O’Farrell, founder of the San Francisco based Identity Theft Council. “Hackers should be held accountable for their crimes when caught, but what is happening here is more of a clash of culture. I believe the British want him held back for his mental illness, not the crime itself. They also believe the American Justice system to be less sympathetic in cases of mental illness like this.”
O’Farrell, however, wonders if the claims McKinnon makes are legitimate. “It should be noted that McKinnon was diagnosed with Asperges after his arrest. If it is discovered this is merely a ploy to avoid extradition, McKinnon’s case may make it more difficult with people with genuine mental illness.”
“It does set a bad precedence as cybercrime is a new and growing area,” Hawkins adds, “and if we start dealing with the capacity of a hacker with our allies — and keep in mind that the Internet is international, and it is critical to get hackers in countries where crime is committed — what other hurdles will we need to clear?”
The damage that McKinnon allegedly caused remains unknown, but what his claims of mental defect , the sophistication needed to carry out the scope of his crime, and what is true or false, may cause even more collateral damage in this case.
“It would be hard to rate him as a hacker,” states Hawkins, leaning more conservatively in his evaluation of the man’s claims. “Hackers are self-promoters. You never really know how much they have really done, and how much they are just taking credit for. You always have to wonder what their motives are. He could either want to make a name for himself or he really could be suffering mental illness.”
O’Farrell, however, does give a nod to one of his accomplishments. “Gary McKinnon would have to be pretty good to repeatedly breach the Pentagon’s security. It is still unknown the extent of damage, but whether it was him or not, McKinnon did alone expose vulnerability in the Pentagon security. That is frightening in itself.”
“Today’s judgment from the UK is mose assuredly groundbreaking in the field of cybercrime,” Hawkins adds.