Gary McKinnon: Britain's hacking hero?

15 May 2009

Gary McKinnon stands accused of the "biggest military hack in history". But is he really a threat to US national security? Stuart Turton investigates.

Gary McKinnon is terrified. The self-described "bumbling computer nerd" is on the brink of extradition to the US and a trial that could see him serve 70 years in a maximum-security prison. His crime? Hacking into US military networks an estimated 97 times between 2001 and 2002 to uncover proof of extraterrestrial life.

That's one side of the story, and it's one his defence team is frantically pushing, determined to buy the 43-year-old resident of Wood Green in London a chance to have his case heard by a UK court. However, there's another side. The indictment brought by the US government accuses McKinnon of sabotaging 2,000 military computers and causing damage worth $700,000. Speaking in 2005, US prosecutor Mark Summers alleged McKinnon's actions had been "intentional and calculated to influence and affect the US government by intimidation and coercion".

If you read the indictment, it says 'with malicious intent'. This is completely untrue. I was interested in maintaining a quiet presence on these machines

McKinnon, of course, denies this: "The damage accusations are ridiculous," he told the BBC back in 2005. "I found out that for it to be an extraditable offence it has to be worth one year in prison. For it to be worth one year in prison, it has to be $5,000 worth of damage. As if by magic, every single computer I was on caused $5,000 worth of damage... completely preposterous! If you read the indictment, it says 'with malicious intent'. This is completely untrue. I was interested in maintaining a quiet presence on these machines."

We made several requests to interview Gary McKinnon, but as his case draws to a close and the pressure mounts, the once accommodating McKinnon has disappeared from sight, leaving communication with the press to his mother, Janis Sharp.

"Gary hasn't done any interviews for about one year and isn't up to doing any," she explained when we contacted her. "He's incredibly stressed and coping on a daily basis is difficult for all of us, but especially for Gary."

McKinnon's reticence is understandable. His case is going badly and yet his profile has never been higher. The public, politicians and celebrities alike are rallying around him, and all for different reasons. McKinnon has become a cause celebre, a convenient flagpole on which to fly a variety of issues and everybody's taking their turn. Here, we chart McKinnon's case from its beginnings, exploring his rise to notoriety and the reasons behind it.

Headline-grabbing hackers

Before the headlines

Gary McKinnon was born in Glasgow in 1966, but moved to London with his mother when he was six. He inherited his passion for UFOs from his stepfather, Wilson Sharp, and became so fixated on the idea that he joined the British UFO Research Association when he was only 15. He was, according to his mother, "always a bit of an unusual kid who didn't have many friends". Instead, he'd spend a lot of time talking about the stars and learning to program on his computer, an Atari 400. Despite his growing affinity for the machine, he left school at 17 to become a hairdresser, a career cut short by a friend's insistence that there was better money, and he was better suited, to a career in IT.

Then came WarGames, the 1983 film in which a young man almost starts World War III after hacking into US military computers. In an interview with The Guardian in 2003, McKinnon told how the film dazzled him and left him wondering, "Can you really do it? Can you really gain unauthorised access to incredibly interesting places? Surely, it can't be that easy." In 1995, he decided to give it a try.

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