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McKinnon UFO hack 'looked like cyberterrorist attack'

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US prosecutors involved in the long-running fight to extradite the British Pentagon hacker Gary McKinnon have defended their dogged pursuit of the UFO hunter.

McKinnon's hack looked for all the world like an attack by cyberterrorists, according to Scott Christie, a former assistant US attorney of New Jersey.

McKinnon is accused of breaking into 97 Pentagon and NASA systems in an attack that floored the network of the Naval Weapons Station Earle, New Jersey, for a week just after the September 2001 terrorist attacks. The shut-out affected the ability of the station to do its job in supplying kit to the US Atlantic fleet. The assault was described at the time as the biggest computer hack of US military systems.

The attack was traced back to McKinnon, unemployed former sysadmin, who was arrested by officer from the UK's former National Hi-Tech Crime Unit in 2002. Extradition proceedings only began in 2005.

McKinnon and his legal team have run a spirited campaign to avoid his extradition, but suffered a severe blow last month when the House of Lords turned down an appeal. They unsuccessfully argued that threats made by US officials during plea bargaining negotiations amounted to an abuse of the extradition process.

Final stand

McKinnon's team are waiting to hear if the European Court of Human Rights will intervene. Coercive plea bargaining tactics by the US authorities and concerns that McKinnon may be subject to a military tribunal are the twin grounds of the European appeal.

McKinnon admits breaking into insecure systems but he says he meant no harm and was only looking for evidence that the US was suppressing knowledge of alien-acquired anti-gravity technology. McKinnon and his legal team have consistently argued he ought to be tried in the UK, rather than thrown to the mercies of the US justice system.

Christie, one of the first US prosecutors in the case, told Computerworld that McKinnon and his legal team are "grasping at straws" to avoidextradition. He says the House of Lords ruling vindicates the US position.

"I think it reinforces the fact that arguments against extradition had no merit and that he is continuing to avoid the inevitable," Christie said. "It is a very significant intrusion case, because it reinforces the fact that a lone individual who is motivated can cause significant damage to the military preparedness of this country."

The attack happened when the US government was investigating a wave of letters containing anthrax that killed five people and injured 17, as well as the devastating World Trade centre attacks.

Christie said the attack on the naval station, coming so soon after 9/11, was serious enough to justify a huge investigative effort, particularly amid initial fears that it might have been the sponsored by a terrorist organisation. He acknowledged that the security of systems may not have been up to scratch, but said that this was besides the point.

Solo

McKinnon reportedly left a note on a Army computer in 2002 that stated, "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."

Christie said US prosecutors are likely to use this statement in an attempt to prove McKinnon was motivated by antagonism against US foreign policy rather than a quest for information about UFOs.

"It [would] show him to be much more deliberate, methodical and vindictive than otherwise," said Christie. "I would imagine that the government is going to try to show that he's not this eccentric, but that he is using that as his cover story where his real motivation is attacking the government and the military because of US policies."

McKinnon faces a seven-count indictment in the US and claims that he caused damages estimated at $700,000. He disputes these damage assessments.

According to Christie, a major focus of the prosecution case will be to prove that McKinnon's attacks caused financial harm. “The government, through McKinnon's admissions, is halfway to the goal line but still has a ways to go," he said.

Pentagon systems left 'wide open'

McKinnon has explained that he was accessed insecure systems by searching for blank passwords using a Perl script. Thereafter he used a remote control tool to search for information on compromised PCs. While doing this he noticed other hackers also rooting around insecure military systems, he claims.

US authorities have been content to allow local authorities to prosecute hackers of US military systems, in the past. For example, Israeli hacker Ehud Tenenbaum and two teenage accomplices were prosecuted in Israel. Tenenbaum eventually received six months of community service when the case came to trial in June 2001.

Previous attempts to prosecute UK hackers under the UK Computer Misuse Act have floundered. This may be why the US authorities have been so energetic in pursuing McKinnon.

For example Mathew Bevan (AKA Kuji) was accused of infiltrating US military computer systems, but the case was dropped in 1997 after a legal battle lasting around 18 months. No attempt was made to extradite Bevan. Like McKinnon, Bevan was motivated by an interest in UFOs. ®

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