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An unemployed British sysadmin was yesterday indicted for what US authorities describe as the "biggest hack of military computers ever detected".

Gary McKinnon, 36, of London, was charged in absentia with one count of causing intentional damage and seven counts of computer fraud relating to alleged attacks on scores of US government computers in a period spanning over a year.

From February 2001 until March 2002, McKinnon allegedly exploited poorly-secured Windows systems to attack 92 networks run by NASA, the Pentagon and 12 other military installation scattered over 14 states. Private sector businesses were also affected by the alleged attacks, which caused an estimated $900,000 in damage overall.

According to court papers filed in New Jersey and Virginia yesterday, McKinnon mounted an attack in attack in February this year that shut down Internet access to 2,000 military computers in the Washington area for three days.

Prosecutors told Reuters that McKinnon "stole passwords, deleted files, monitored traffic and shut down computer networks on military bases from Pearl Harbour to Connecticut". He is accused of scanning networks for vulnerabilities prior to using a software program called RemotelyAnywhere to snoop on network traffic and erase files.

"This is an incredibly sophisticated cyber criminal," Newark U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie told Reuters. "He was a very busy guy."

Despite the seriousness of the alleged attacks, US authorities are keen to stress no classified information was obtained through the year long assaults.

Authorities believe that McKinnon (whose handle is Solo) acted alone and are not attributing his alleged crimes to any terrorist motive.

US authorities are seeking to extradite McKinnon, who faces charges punishable by fines of up to $1.75 million in fines and 80 years in jail (each count in his indictment carries a maximum prison term of 10 years).

Reuters reports that McKinnon's lawyers in London yesterday issued a statement yesterday admitting that he was arrested in March for computer-related offences. His present whereabouts, and even if he is currently held in custody, remain unclear. ®

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