McKinnon UFO hack 'looked like cyberterrorist attack'
Axis of eccentricity
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.
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.
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. ®
"...not one single branch of the US administration entirely trusts any of the other branches... ...you can bet your bottom dollar that _every_ agency has some files on UFO reports."
So every branch of the US administration has a niggling doubt at the back of their collective minds that the other branches may be fibbing about knowing nothing about UFOs and in a worst case scenario are either in hock to the little grey dudes or have been replaced by shape-changing alien lizardmen?!??
Bloody hell, I thought I'd worked in offices with a bit of interdepartmental tension but that takes the biscuit =)
John Charles de Menezes ...
... looked for all the world like a terrorist ...
y'know, I'm a terrorist, too
So, when this first came up, I was curious. I looked for the published files about the case.
It seems that, amongst other things, McKinnon is being charged because (despite how easy it was) he gained access to information that the US Military had taken action to secure from the public.
So how am I a terrorist?
Well, the document I was reading included the IP addresses of some computers that McKinnon accessed. But the addresses had been blocked out with a black box - obviously information they intended to secure. I wondered how secure it really was. I copied the text (ctrl+a to select it all, ctrl+c to copy it) - opened nopepad, and pasted the text (ctrl+v)
There were the IP addresses, clear as day. Oops. Looks like I bypassed some of their (admittedly feeble) security. Looks like I am guilty of terrorism, too.
Now, I have an inkling of how McKinnon got in. I now have a list of IP addresses that were previously vulnerable. Makes me want to test them, to see if either I'm right about my guesses, and whether anyone has bothered to actually secure the computers. I wouldn't have done anything bad (maybe poked around just from curiosity then left.)
I never tested this, since I'm assuming the hole would have been plugged (if it's what I'm thinking, it'd be plugged pretty easily)
Anyway... yeah... hopefully this story goes some way to showing that we can't compare apples and oranges. A lack of security on the internet *can* be seen as an invitation.
I could have been copying/pasting that information for legitimate reasons and expecting the censored information to be missing. Or I could have been doing exactly what I did, and knowingly searched for a way around their security - but when security is so lax...
... ugh. It's like putting a "do not steal" sign up on a shopfront then hoping.
Except that's not really the right metaphor. Unless something was damaged... it's like putting a "do not peek" sign on a mostly-closed door. Then filing charges of industrial espionage against someone walking past, who looks through the door.
Leaving a door unlocked does not give anyone the legal or moral right to steal your things. It doesn't even give them the legal or moral right to walk through the door. But in a building where people *do* have the right to walk around (say, a university) - leaving a door unlocked still doesn't give people the legal right to walk in, but it hardly seems like an extreme case if they do. There are many students who'll walk into an unlocked room, sit down quietly, and do their study. Should we sue them for trespass?
For me? I don't want to hurt anyone. I don't want to damage anything. I don't want to steal anything. I *do* have a sense of curiosity, and I love understanding how things work. I love to read unusual spam mails and try to figure out what the con is. I love to calculate how best to count cards in a game of blackjack (but have never considered doing so in a casino where I can profit from cheating). And I love making computers do things they weren't intended to. It's a game. I stay on the legal side (working in IT, I have many systems that I'm the administrator of, so I can hunt out these weaknesses as a productive way of improving our systems)
Now, don't get me wrong. I am entirely against criminals. I am entirely against people who use computers to "bully" others. I truly, passionately HATE all the trojans and email scams that play on the users ignorance. But any large company? They should have at least one competent IT person who can secure their system. If they don't? They should hire someone to look it over and give advice. Because, although an unlocked door isn't an excuse for thieves to take things from your house, we don't see companies that leave their warehouses unlocked all night.
Let's switch this around, and remove computers and "the internet" from the discussion (since people overreact about any crime involving computers). Imagine if the US left their weapon stores locked (but only with a locker padlock, which can be picked using a paperclip) and McKinnon walked in looking for alien technology. And saw all their missiles, torpedoes, nuclear bombs, and who knows what else?
Yeah, he'd be breaking the law, but who would we be outraged at?
And if they said it cost $700,000 to fix his damage (if he didn't take anything. They just spent that much investigating what happened, putting in new locks, etc.) - would we be more or less skeptical of their case?
Dead vulture for a culture that is crushing our sense of exploration and wonder.