British hacker one step closer to US extradition

Gary McKinnon loses appeal to avoid facing trial for 'the biggest military computer hack of all time.'

Gary McKinnon, the Briton charged with what American prosecutors called "the biggest military computer hack of all time," lost his appeal Tuesday to avoid extradition to the US to face trial for his crimes.

The Guardian reports that Lord Justice Maurice Kay and Mr. Justice Goldring dismissed Mr. McKinnon's challenge to the decision by British Home Secretary John Reid to allow McKinnon's extradition to the US. McKinnon was indicted by the US Department of Justice in 2002 for illegally accessing Pentagon and NASA computers, and could face up to 70 years in prison and $1.75 million in fines.

"Mr McKinnon's conduct was intentional and calculated to influence and affect the US government by intimidation and coercion," they said. "As a result of his conduct, damage was caused to computers by impairing their integrity, availability and operation of programmes, systems, information and data on the computers, rendering them unreliable."

McKinnon's lawyer, who argued that McKinnon should stand trial in Britain because his crimes were committed there, said McKinnon "will apply for leave to appeal his sentence to the House of Lords," Britain's highest court. The Guardian notes that McKinnon's appeal is "seen as a test case on extradition law."

The Scotsman writes that McKinnon, a systems administrator for a small business, became interested in computer hacking after watching "WarGames," a movie about a teenager whose hacking nearly causes a nuclear war. That interest, combined with a fascination with science fiction and UFOs, led to him breaking into US government computers to access "incredibly interesting places."

His hobby did not go undetected and he was arrested in November 2002. McKinnon is charged with using his computer skills to gain access to 53 US army computers, including those used for national defence and security, and 26 US navy computers, including those at US naval weapons station Earle in New Jersey, responsible for replenishing munitions and supplies for the deployed Atlantic fleet.
McKinnon is also charged with hacking into 16 NASA computers and one US defence department computer.
Allegations include copying and deleting data and causing damage which cost more than $700,000 (£350,000) to repair.

McKinnon, in an interview with the BBC, claimed that he has been the subject of "improper threats" from the US government.

Mr McKinnon said; "I was told that if I didn't cross the pond like a good little boy then they (the US government) would prosecute me to the max.
"I was also told by the New Jersey authorities that they'd like to see me fry."
He said he knew what he had done, but said American claims about the level of damage he had caused to government computers were "ridiculous."

The Guardian notes that the judges who rejected McKinnon's appeal expressed their unhappiness with the alleged threats, writing in their ruling, "We make no secret of the fact that we view with a degree of distaste the way in which the American authorities are alleged to have approached the plea bargain negotiations."

In another article, the Guardian examines how McKinnon, who has described himself as a "bumbling computer nerd," was able to break into Pentagon and NASA computers. McKinnon says that as it turns out, it was remarkably easy due to basic lapses by US government users.

The biggest loopholes had been created by users who failed to follow basic security measures - such as changing their password from the default "password".
With such glaring errors leaving the backdoor wide open to intruders, Mr McKinnon said it was a simple task to control computers remotely, from the other side of the world. Deliberately working at times when American staff would be asleep, he would hop on to more secure systems that were impenetrable to outsiders but wide open to "trusted" users. ...
He has admitted his efforts were more like those of the Keystone Cops than a masterful thriller. "It got a bit silly," he told the Guardian last year. "I suppose it means I'm not a secretive, sophisticated, checking-myself-every-step-of-the-way type of hacker."

The Times of London notes that McKinnon has "a vocal support network, whose members say he is being made a scapegoat for American security failings." He has been the subject of a number of online petitions, and has a website, "Free Gary McKinnon," devoted to his case, which saw considerable activity after the judges' ruling was announced.

Within minutes of this morning's decision, comments and messages of support had been posted. One contributor, Louis Berk, wrote: "A naive man perhaps, but certainly not a dangerous one. I cannot understand what purpose can be achieved by submitting him to the US justice system. This is a travesty of justice regardless of the side of the Atlantic you come from."

Much of the concern supporters have expressed on the "Free Gary McKinnon" website appears to focus on the treatment of British nationals by the US justice system and whether McKinnon can receive a fair trial there. The site also maintains that McKinnon should be tried under British law, and monitors British cases of hacking and extradition that may be relevant to his case.

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