When Gary McKinnon decided to search for evidence of UFOs in 2001, he was surprised at the ease with which he gained access to American military computers. Beginning with just a few hours of hacking each day, McKinnon eventually quit his job so that he could spend all his time using the hundreds of passwords he discovered to access nearly a hundred computers at the Pentagon and NASA.

While many Americans might consider airport security and border control to be the most noticeable government efforts to enhance homeland security, defending against the more subtle technological threat of hacking has presented unique challenges. McKinnon’s case constitutes only one example of an ongoing problem that has created difficult legal obstacles for lawmakers and law enforcement alike.

According to McKinnon, even high-level government computers were easy to infiltrate because many of the passwords had never been changed. U.S. prosecutors allege that McKinnon’s hacking caused $700,000 worth of damage and the deletion of government files. The charges he faces could result in a prison sentence of up to 70 years.

The case is currently stalled in the U.S., however, because McKinnon is fighting to avoid extradition from the United Kingdom. McKinnon is a native of Scotland and was in London downloading a photo from a NASA computer in Houston when he was discovered in 2002.

The House of Lords will rule on whether to block the extradition this summer. It could keep McKinnon from being extradited if it finds that, as he claims, U.S. prosecutors have “abused the legal process by engaging in plea bargaining.”

McKinnon’s case, difficult as it is, represents only the tip of the iceberg in the struggle to apprehend hackers who seek information on topics that are very arguably more important than McKinnon’s UFO interest to U.S. security and policy.

Recently, for instance, two U.S. Congressmen claimed that the Chinese government was behind attacks on staffers’ computers that contained lists of Chinese dissidents’ identities and information from Congressional hearings. In response, Rep. Chris Smith has introduced the Global Online Freedom Act, which aims to keep U.S. companies from facilitating such activity.

Unlike McKinnon, the Chinese hackers have proven themselves sophisticated and difficult to track. As a result, U.S. intelligence services often have to consider circumstantial evidence, meaning that it is difficult for them to pinpoint with certainty who is behind these attacks and others like them.

Although these cases range from the ridiculous to more serious issues of national security and policy, these incidents and many more like them should raise Congressional awareness of the continuing need to improve defenses against hackers from abroad.

“We shouldn’t be outraged at this latest attack,” said James Lewis, director and senior fellow of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “This is just normal stuff between countries. If you want to be outraged, be outraged that our defenses are so poor.”

– Erica Youngstrom

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