Hacked into NASA and US military to find critical documents about UFOs.
Gary McKinnon was born in 1966 in Glasgow, Scotland. He got his first computer when he was 14 years old and in his mid-twenties, his friends picked up his great interest and convinced him to take it further. He started a qualification course in programming and ended up doing different contract work in the computing field, according to The Guardian.
McKinnon is known by many as the “UFO-hacker”, already at early age he developed a strong belief and interest in Unidentified Flying Objects, UFOs. In the late 90’s, he decided to use his hacking skills to research something he had suspected during a longer period of time, that the US government was withholding important information about UFOs.
“It wasn’t just an interest in little green men and flying saucers. I believe that there are spacecrafts, or there have been crafts, flying around that the public doesn’t know about“, McKinnon said in an interview with the BBC. He also believed that the US military had reverse engineered an anti-gravity propulsion system from recovered alien spacecraft, and that this propulsion system remained a secret to the public.
The search for possible UFOs became an obsession to McKinnon. His life in the UK fell apart as he examined high-level computer systems in the US. He lost his job and his girlfriend left him. He stopped eating normally, did not wash himself and sat hours in front of the computer without changing his clothes. His friends and relatives told him to stop hacking, but he never managed to follow their advice, according to The BBC.
Biggest military computer hack of all time
The obsession led to McKinnon being accused by The US Government of hacking into 97 United States military and NASA computers over a period of 13 months between February 2001 and March 2002, while staying at the house of his girlfriend’s relative in London, using the hacking alias “Solo”.
McKinnon found unprotected computer systems operated by the US army, the navy, NASA and the Pentagon. Every time he hacked into a system, he left a message. „It was frightening because they had little or no security. I was always leaving messages on the desktop saying, ‚Your security is really crap‘.“, he said to the BBC.
The hacking came to an end in 2002, McKinnon had left to many clues behind him. He got caught when trying to download a black-and-white photograph which he thought was an alien spacecraft from a NASA computer at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. McKinnon was immediately traced since he used his own email address, reporting The Guardian. When Britain’s hi-tech crime unit came for him, he was not surprised, „I think I almost wanted to be caught, because it was ruining me. I had this classic thing of wanting to be caught so there would be an end to it.“, he said to the BBC.
The hacking is believed to have caused around $700,000 dollars in damage to government systems in the US. They US Government described McKinnon’s hacking as „intentional and calculated to influence and affect the US government by intimidation and coercion“. McKinnon himself insisted that the actions were made in „moral crusade“ to find critical documents about UFOs, in order to help citizens, receive information that the government had kept from them.
Asperger syndrome and fighting extradition
Since the crimes were committed against targets in the US, the US government pressed for an extradition to convict McKinnon in their country, making it possible for him to receive a sentence of up to 70 years in prison. The incident surprised McKinnon who thought he would stand trial in Britain and receive maximum four years in prison.
The process of possible extradition to the US started in 2002. Three years later, McKinnon became subject to bail conditions and had to sign in at his local police station every evening and remain at his fixed home address at night. McKinnon constantly fought against the extradition, insisting that he never intended anything malicious by his hacking, according to The Guardian.
The extradition process became highly criticized by McKinnon’s supporters, pointing out his non malicious intentions and help with detecting security flaws in the systems. The support further increased when McKinnon in 2008 got diagnosed with Asperger syndrome by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a leader in the field. According to him, sufferers commonly become obsessed with specific activities and interests, and have a hard time evaluating the consequences of their actions. Professor Baron-Cohen said it was all consistent with McKinnon’s story and obsessive search for what he thought was the truth.
One of McKinnon’s supporters was the American criminal defense attorney and former NASA agent, Joseph Gutheinz Jr, he said that he feared McKinnon would not find justice in the US, because „the American judicial system turns a blind eye towards the needs of the mentally ill“. McKinnon fast became a symbol of the controversial US-UK extradition treaty, and many famous names publicly declared their support in the media, Sting, Trudie Styler, Julie Christie, David Gilmour, Graham Nash, Peter Gabriel, The Proclaimers etc., are examples of people standing behind him.
In 2012, after 10 years of fighting the extradition, McKinnon won his case. The risk to his health posed by extradition to the U.S., was too big, according to Theresa May, the U.K. Home Secretary. „After careful consideration of all of the relevant material, I have concluded that Mr. McKinnon’s extradition would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that a decision to extradite would be incompatible with Mr. McKinnon’s human rights,“ said Theresa May. The UK court also decided to not claim charges and McKinnon was set free, according to the BBC.
Image of Gary McKinnon: Wikimedia Commons