To the United States, he is a seriously
dangerous man who put the nation’s security at risk by
committing "the biggest military computer hack of all time."
But Briton Gary McKinnon says he is just an ordinary
computer nerd who wanted to find out whether aliens and UFOs
During his two-year quest, McKinnon broke into computers at
the Pentagon, NASA, and the Johnson Space Center as well as
systems used by the U.S. army, navy and air force.
U.S. officials say he caused $700,000 worth of damage and
even crippled vital defense systems shortly after the September
The unemployed computer programmer is now battling
extradition to the United States, where, if found guilty, he
faces up to 70 years in jail and fines of up to $1.75 million.
His lawyer fears he could even be sent to Guantanamo Bay.
It’s all a far cry from how he first got into hacking:
watching a film about a teenage boy who breaks into a military
central computer and almost starts World War Three.
"I had seen the film ‘War Games’ and I do remember clearly
thinking at the time, that’s amazing — a great big military
computer system and a young, spotty teenager," the softly
spoken 39-year-old told Reuters in an interview.
A decade later, McKinnon, armed with information gleaned
from the book, "The Hacker’s Handbook," began his snooping.
During 2000-1 from his home in Hornsey, north London, and
using a computer with just a limited 56K dial-up modem, he
turned his sights on the American government and military.
"My main thing was wanting to find out about UFOs and
suppressed technology," he said insisting his intention was not
to cause damage. "I wanted to … find out stuff the government
wouldn’t tell you about."
He said it was easy, despite being only a rank amateur.
Using the hacking name "Solo," he discovered that many U.S.
top-security systems were using an insecure Microsoft Windows
program and had no password protection at all.
"So I got commercially available off-the-shelf software and
used them to scan large military networks … anything I
thought might have possible links to UFO information," he said.
He said he came across a group called the "Disclosure
Project," which had expert testimonies from senior figures who
said technology obtained from extra-terrestrials did exist.
One NASA scientist had reported that the Johnson Space
Center had a facility where UFOs were airbrushed out of
high-resolution satellite images. So, he hacked in.
"I saw what I’m convinced was some kind of satellite or
spacecraft but it was manufactured by no means I have ever seen
before — there were no rivets, no seams, it was like one
flawless piece of material. And that was above the Earth."
However, his probing came to an end in March 2002, when
British police arrested him.
"I was completely obsessed. I was completely addicted. It
was like a huge game but I was getting very paranoid," he said.
McKinnon’s own story might sound like the plot of a movie,
but the charges he faces are deadly serious. He argues he is
being made a scapegoat by U.S. authorities to deter other
would-be hackers rather than address their own security flaws.
"I’m already being treated as a terrorist," he said. "I
appear in an official American army pamphlet … in a guide to
combating terrorism in the 21st century."
The next stage of his legal battle takes place on May 10.
But he hints that whatever happens, he has a lot more to tell.
"I can’t talk about a lot of stuff that I found. It’s just
not the right time," he said with a smile.
By Michael Holden