Gary McKinnon: Hacking Mastermind or Foolish Amateur?

Jul 30, 2008 8:46am

By Stephen Webb, ABC News London The U.S. government is calling it "the biggest military computer hack ever." What does it take to earn such a title? Perhaps you would need China’s thousands of military cyber hackers? Or maybe you are a Russian spy, who has infiltrated the Pentagon? Or a new threat from Al Qaeda? 

The answer is Gary McKinnon, a British former computer systems administrator who says he used commercially available software and simply found many military computers with blank or default passwords. He says he was searching for evidence of UFOs. McKinnon is accused of hacking 97 computers owned by NASA, the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Department of Defense in February 2001 and March 2002. The U.S. government wants the U. K. to extradite him to stand trial in the United States. McKinnon appealed the extradition but today lost his case in the House of Lords, Britain’s highest court. According to his Web site,, he intends to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. In an interview with the BBC, McKinnon claimed that he simply searched military networks for user accounts that had a blank or default password. For example, the password was simply ‘password’. Rather foolishly, he admits, McKinnon bought some commercial remote control software, which he installed on the military computers he had hacked. Police later traced his purchase and caught him. Shortly before his arrest McKinnon was leaving antiwar messages on the screens of the computers he had hacked into. “It got a bit silly," he told the Guardian in 2006. "I suppose it means I’m not a secretive, sophisticated, checking-myself-every-step-of-the-way type of hacker." McKinnon believed he would face justice in the UK and face, perhaps, a few years in jail. If he is extradited to the U.S., he could face up to 70 years in prison. The full judgement of his appeal has been published online. It states that McKinnon admits to the hacking but denies causing any damage.  He says he found evidence of other hackers inside the military networks and is being blamed for their actions. McKinnon claims that he is being treated unfairly and used as a scapegoat. He cites a 1997 case  in which Israeli hackers attacked Pentagon computer servers and were not extradited. You can read more about the story here. Photo Credit: AP

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