June 9, 2009

British Hacker Hopes To Avoid Extradition To U.S.

The British High Court has heard that a computer hacker who targeted NASA should be tried in the UK and not the US because his mental state is so fragile, BBC News reported.

There is "clear, uncontradicted expert evidence" that the stress of extradition could result in psychosis and suicide, according to lawyers for Gary McKinnon.

The Glasgow-born McKinnon, 42, from Wood Green, north London, has Asperger's syndrome and claims he was looking for details of UFOs.

If convicted in the U.S., he faces up to 70 years in prison.

British police arrested McKinnon in 2002 and he has already appealed unsuccessfully to the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights to avoid extradition.

At the High Court in London, Lord Justice Stanley Burnton and Justice Wilkie will be asked to rule on whether the health risk is too great to allow his removal.

During 2001 and 2002, McKinnon hacked into 97 government computers belonging to organizations including the U.S. Navy and NASA.

His actions resulted in damage upwards of $800,000 at a time of heightened security in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, according to the U.S. government.

McKinnon said he recognizes that he committed a crime and has since apologized.

However, he disputes the amount of damage the U.S. alleges he caused to its computer systems and says he did not employ any complicated techniques.

"I'm not, you know, a master hacker. I didn't write my own programs or anything. I used commercially off-the-shelf available software," he said.

Edward Fitzgerald QC, McKinnon's lawyer, told the High Court on Tuesday that the home secretary had "underestimated the gravity" of the threat to his client's mental health.

He told the High Court that McKinnon is an eccentric person who has passionate views about UFOs and that he is not a malicious hacker.

Fitzgerald argued that extradition was "unnecessary, avoidable and disproportionate".

McKinnon said the last seven years since his arrest had taken a considerable toll on him, both personally and financially, and he is unable to work in IT.

He claims the worst impact, however, has been psychological.

"I wake up feeling like someone's stomping on my chest every morning."

Being sent to the U.S. would be very difficult for McKinnon, according to his solicitor Karen Todner.

"One of the problems with Asperger's is that you need to have your family and support network around you and Gary would be completely denied that," she said. "He's absolutely terrified about going to America."

The National Autistic Society (NAS) is supporting McKinnon's legal case.

The NAS said in a statement: "Asperger syndrome is part of the autism spectrum. It is not uncommon for people with Asperger syndrome to develop single-minded, obsessional interests, and to be unaware of the effect their actions have on others."

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) turned down a request from his lawyers in February for McKinnon to be prosecuted in the UK on lesser charges.

Alison Saunders, the head of the CPS organized crime division, said the best place for the case to be heard was the U.S.

"The evidence we have does not come near to reflecting the criminality that is alleged by the American authorities," she said.

She said his actions were not random experiments in computer hacking, but a deliberate effort to breach U.S. defense systems at a critical time that caused well-documented damage.


On The Net:

US Department of Justice

Crown Prosecution Service

Free Gary

National Autistic Society