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Gary McKinnon: Scapegoat or Public Enemy?

By Colin Barker, Special to CNET
July 13, 2005

An unemployed North Londoner has been accused of committing the "biggest military computer hack of all time" by the U.S. government while authorities in Britain chose to release him without charge. Gary McKinnon has a lot to worry about. His job prospects are bleak. He will shortly have to leave his home in North London and could be facing up to 70 years in a U.S. federal prison--a prospect that terrifies him.

His actions have been well-recorded. Over a period of years he managed to bypass the security of what should be the most sophisticated IT systems on the planet, many of which belong to the U.S. Department of Defense and NASA.

That was back in 2002. McKinnon has already been investigated thoroughly by the legal authorities in the United Kingdom and released without charge. But what some see as the slow-working cogs of the U.S. legal system are clicking into action now--leaving him hanging in limbo as he awaits a hearing later this month that will determine whether he's to be extradited. He's accused of hacking and causing damage to federal defense systems. Paul McNulty, the U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Virginia, said in 2002 that "Mr. McKinnon is charged with the biggest military computer hack of all time," according to several publications, including CNN.

The unemployed UFO enthusiast was, metaphorically speaking, able to walk right in, look around and make himself at home in what are supposedly some of the most secure systems in the world. Although breaking into the Department of Defense required a combination of ingenuity and hours of mindless drudgery, ultimately, McKinnon says, it was the "dangerously lax IT systems" that made it possible, he claims. And as for the "minor" damage to the systems concerned, it was not deliberate, he said, but happened accidentally while he was trying to cover his tracks.

McKinnon, now 39, admits that there was a period of his life when he was "addicted" to computers. It threatened his life, his health and his relationships at the time, but he couldn't leave them alone.

His interest in IT was sparked, as it was for many others, by an interest in science, science fiction and the unknown. It was the search for proof of extraterrestrial life and suspicions about federal policies and actions in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, that led him to the restricted government sites in the first place.

McKinnon's story, some say, raises critical issues about the rights of British citizens accused of committing crimes in the United States, the state of IT security internationally, and the possible existence of antigravity technology in a U.S. military establishment.

Q: Why do you think the U.S. authorities behaved the way they did, with an extradition order?
McKinnon: Well, the reason they give is that I, on my own, closed down the entire metro district of Washington for a few days, including a weapons station, which I dispute.

My thing was being quiet and not being seen and getting the information out. And also, when I was there, you do a NetStat routine and you see all the other connections to that machine, and there is a permanent weakness for foreign hackers because their security is not even lax, it is nonexistent. You wouldn't believe it.

They might claim that by installing a remote control program, I opened them (the systems) up, but the access was already there. I didn't even have to crack passwords.

What about the damage you are said to have caused?
McKinnon: What they call damage is really just them realizing that they have been accessed without authorization. Then they say things like I deleted 300 users, deleted systems files and such. That was one instance when I did a batch file to clean up all my stuff--I think once and only once, though perhaps I ran it on the root drive of the "c:" drive. But it certainly wasn't every machine I was on and, if you believe them, they talk about 94 networks being damaged. It is very worrying that it is the world's only superpower, and it is that easy to breach security.

Surely all the data was backed up anyway?
McKinnon: Well, it should be, and it should be behind a firewall, and the local administrator should not have a blank password. Take one defense computer, where they use image-based installation techniques where most of the machines have the same BIOS, the same hard drive, the same hardware specification, and you just whack it out across the systems. Unfortunately for them, the local system administrator's password was blank. So you don't even need to become the domain administrator. That's 5,000 machines all with a blank system level administrator password. To be fair to them, as I got deeper into it, they closed me down pretty quickly.

Did it worry you, this lack of protection for systems?
McKinnon: I was always very frightened when I realized there were always other people from all over the world on there. These were like foreign ISPs, routinely going through things. It is very worrying that it is the world's only superpower, and it is that easy to breach security.

What were you doing prior to the most recent arrest?
McKinnon: I wanted to get the trailing documentation to screw the Americans. I looked at things and I didn't like what I was seeing. They talk about the war on terror, and meanwhile they are training people in torture techniques, breaking and entering, and close-quarter fighting, and these are all little South American dictatorships. And then there is the humanist angle of antigravity technology and the 9/11 thing, but that didn't get very far.

Was your main motivation the search for extraterrestrials?
McKinnon: That is how it started off, and it then grew into suspicions about 9/11, because there are hundreds of unanswered questions about 9/11: the dragging away of all the forensics evidence, and the sale of all the concrete and steel to China. Even the firemen of New York organized their own Web site to complain that this isn't a proper process. Then there are the schools for terrorists run by America to help Latin-American dictatorships and stuff.

So when you were searching for extraterrestrial life, how did you feel about it? Was it just fun?
McKinnon: It was mainly very, very boring. You had to trawl through so much, and bear in mind that it wasn't publicly accessible Web sites, it was all private military Web sites. So it was about logistics, support and, basically, as soon as I controlled a network, I ran a file-searching program looking for keywords in files. So it was exciting every time you did turn up something, which only happened a few times. That was very exciting. I called it research, but it is a bit of a misnomer really.

Was the fun part just in being where you are not supposed to be?
McKinnon: Yes. There (was) a definite illicit thrill that didn't last very long. The issues around the UFO thing, as I discovered more and learned more, became much more serious. Eventually it became all about the issue of suppressed technology. I know for a fact that they have antigravity. And the basic quantum-physical mechanics of having antigravity imply a free source of energy, getting energy direct from the vacuum. Now to me, that would stop all the wars over oil. It would help fight famine and (help) with irrigation. It would be free energy, and that is a huge thing.

So the U.S. has have developed an antigravity device?
McKinnon: Yes. Recently, I think two years ago, Boeing Aerospace announced that they were putting $50 million into investigating antigravity research. For me, the timing was interesting because I think it is something they already have, but it's not general knowledge, and if they were caught they would probably say that it was renegade factions high up in NASA, high up in the military and high up in commerce.

How do you come across these things? Is information on antigravity devices freely available?
McKinnon: Some of it is, but it is a combination of what is freely available and what isn't. Take the Disclosure Project, which is a Washington lobbyist group run by Steven Greer, a military doctor, and he had 300 testimonials in his book from people, ranging from civilian air traffic controllers to ex-commanders-in-chief of NATO, all saying, "Yes, UFOs exist; yes, certain parts of the military know about this, and have this and are using the technology and implementing a trickle-down thing so that eventually the technology will be everywhere."

How does the possibility of being extradited to the U.S. make you feel?
McKinnon: Better than I was the first time around (in 2002), although it is very similar. I had lots of work lined up which was Internet-related--computer games testing--and I have lost that because of my bail conditions. My landlord wants me out, because of all the press and police attention we had, so it is a bit of a rerun of 2002. Lost the flat, lost the work, but I managed to keep the girlfriend this time.

For a few days it was very dark, but I am feeling quite up now because we have been talking to Boris Johnson (a conservative member of Parliament), who is leading a Parliamentary Early Day Motion against the 2003 Extradition Act along with the Enron Three--or the NatWest Three, as they like to be called now (three British bankers who are also facing extradition to the U.S. on charges related to the Enron financial scandal). So together we are trying to get a judicial review going and change the law.

So what is the official position?
McKinnon: I asked my solicitor why the CPS had taken (my) case away from the U.K. police and handed it to the U.S. She was speaking to someone who was fairly high up, and he said that it had gone way above his head. Reading between the lines, that means the Home Office.

Is that a good thing?
McKinnon: No. It almost sounds like a done deal to me. The fact that I am not alone is encouraging. We are getting nearly 70 MPs (members of Parliament) signed up to the early day motion.

Have you had much response, or help, from the hacker community?
McKinnon: I never really mixed with the hacker community, if you can call them that. In fact, after all of this happened back in 2002, some of them contacted me, but they are not really hackers. In fact they are all professionals, but they used to hack, and they are very good and they are a knowledgeable lot. Some know about the law, some know forensic computing, and there has been a good bit of support there. In fact, the Free Gary Web site came from one of those people.

A Web site you are not allowed to use, of course, because of your bail conditions?
McKinnon. Right, I have to collect printouts of my e-mails and stuff, which is silly, as I have been free to use the Internet for three years, although I haven't actually had my own Internet account.



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