The name Gary McKinnon is one that many people will associate with hacking and perhaps with United States cyber defence policy. Most people will know the basic facts of the case, but may not realise the length of time it took for the threat of extradition to be dropped, shortly before the case was dropped by British prosecutors.
Gary McKinnon was first interviewed by police in March 2002, and the case was finally dropped by both American and British police in 2012. In between, his family and supporters fought a draining ten-year legal battle with American authorities. McKinnon’s alleged crime was hacking 97 U.S. military and NASA computers over 13 months in 2001/2. His code name was ‘Solo’, perhaps chosen because he was acting alone. His motive was the hope of finding suppressed information about UFOs. He also left messages mocking American security systems, and criticising their foreign policy. Perhaps for this reason as much as the hacks, a federal grand jury of ordinary citizens indicted McKinnon in November 2002.
The Extradition Act of 2003 played a key role in the McKinnon case. It meant that the U.S. could ask for McKinnon to be extradited without needing to provide contestable evidence. In 2005 they made a request for extradition, and the home secretary John Reid agreed to this in 2006. In late 2008, an appeal to the House of Lords was rejected. After this, the case was widely covered by mainstream media in Britain. His case was supported by various celebrities such as Stephen Fry, and by politicians including David Cameron. Eighty MPs signed a motion opposing extradition. One national newspaper began a petition for McKinnon’s release. By this stage, Gary had been diagnosed with asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. His legal team argued that it would be unnecessarily cruel for him to be tried in a foreign country, away from his support network. Nevertheless, in July 2009 parliament voted not to review the Extradition Act.
At this point, yours truly wrote to my then MP, Ann Winterton, asking for her to lobby the Government. I received a supportive reply but there was little she could do. The general feeling was that the Government were unwilling to risk offending a close ally. Public pressure continued and in 2010, home secretary Theresa May adjourned the case. Much of the focus was on McKinnon’s autism, and the anxiety he was suffering at the prospect of extradition. It was speculated that he might take his life should be extradited.
The extradition row finally ended in October 2012 when Mrs May announced she would block the extradition. Two months later, the Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer confirmed that McKinnon would not face trial in Britain. After a decade of legal wrangles, Gary McKinnon’s ordeal was over.
Written by:- S.J. Thorley