US v. McKinnon: Unequal under the Law

This NYT article caught my eye this morning:

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon plans to create a new military command for cyberspace, administration officials said Thursday, stepping up preparations by the armed forces to conduct both offensive and defensive computer warfare.
The military command would complement a civilian effort to be announced by President Obama on Friday that would overhaul the way the United States safeguards its computer networks.
Mr. Obama, officials said, will announce the creation of a White House office - reporting to both the National Security Council and the National Economic Council - that will coordinate a multibillion-dollar effort to restrict access to government computers and protect systems that run the stock exchanges, clear global banking transactions and manage the air traffic control system.

The use of the term “warfare” is obviously a bit chilling, I’d expect there to be squalls from the wingnutsphere and elsewhere about civil liberties implications etc., and it makes me a little uneasy myself.

But given that the Pentagon estimates that there are a quarter of a million attacks on its systems every year, it’s pretty obvious that the US needs to improve its computer security, as the case of UK citizen Gary McKinnon illustrates.

McKinnon repeatedly hacked into US federal and military computers during 2001-2002. He was your archetypal PERL haxxor, using a script to search for blank passwords. He found plenty, and frolicked freely through 97 computer systems, at one point leaving the following message:

US foreign policy is akin to government-sponsored terrorism these days…It was not a mistake that there was a huge security stand-down on September 11 last year… I am SOLO. I will continue to disrupt at the highest levels.

Chilling, eh? What a sinister baddie. Throw the book at him.

Indeed, after a lengthy court battle, he stands to be extradited to the US to face trial next month, and a likely 8-10-year jail term (out of a potential maximum of 60-70 years), and possible enormous fines.

But in a later interview, he revealed what he’d been up to:

I knew that governments suppressed antigravity, UFO-related technologies, free energy or what they call zero-point energy. This should not be kept hidden from the public when pensioners can’t pay their fuel bills.

The fact that he claims to have found evidence of all this may give you pause for thought. As might the fact that he’s since been diagnosed as suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome.

In an article in Glasgow’s The Herald newspaper, retired senior NASA special agent and criminal investigator, now criminal justice college lecturer, Joseph Gutheinz expressed fears about the fairness of any trial in the US, citing “lack of concern by law enforcement and the judiciary towards the mentally ill.”

McKinnon was first tried under the UK’s Computer Misuse Act, where the crimes carry a maximum penalty of five years, but this failed, partly because the computers targeted were in the US.

What happens next highlights a great inequality in law enforcement between the US and UK. In 2003, the two countries signed an Extradition Treaty, but although this was made law by an Act of Parliament in the same year, it still hasn’t been ratified by the US. This means that the US can ask for someone to be extradited from the UK on the basis of “information providing a reasonable basis to believe” that an offense has been committed, whereas for the UK to extradite someone from the US prima facie evidence of wrongdoing is necessary, under the terms of an earlier treaty. When it passed the Act, the UK government stressed that it was essential to the “war on terror.”

Next month will see the announcement of the results of a judicial review which could see McKinnon immediately sent for trial in the US, all his other legal avenues having been exhausted.

Gary McKinnon’s far from lacking friends and support, but if you feel like adding your voice, check out the Free Gary McKinnon website at

UPDATE: I made an error above. The Telegraph article I cited stated that the treaty had not been ratified by the US, which was true when it was written in July 2006, and indeed when it was originally applied to Gary McKinnon in 2005. Senate did in the end ratify the treaty later in 2006. It’s the terms of the treaty itself that are uneven:

... it removes the requirement on the US to provide prima facie evidence when requesting the extradition of people from the UK but maintains the requirement on the UK to satisfy the “probable cause” requirement in the US when seeking the extradition of US nationals ...

Apologies for any confusion. Mainly my own. To avoid even more, I’ve amended the post accordingly.


Posted by YAFB on 05/29/09 at 04:53 AM • Permalink

Categories: Politics

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Well, if he gets a lawyer sharp enough to play up the UFO angle in a big way, maybe he’ll walk on general kookery grounds. It does seem pretty unfair that only one side is bound by the terms of a treaty.

Again, I’m not a lawyer, but how can a treaty signed by only one party be enforceable?

Thanks for the question, Tom, which highlighted some confusion on my part - see my update above. The inequality point stands.

There have been reports of repeated malicious DoS attacks against LGBT websites, apparently emanating from Russia and Eastern Europe, most recently on May 15, which was promoted as an international day against homophobia…

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