Interview with UFO hacker Gary McKinnon

He says all he wanted to do was find evidence of suppressed technology and UFOs. Now Gary McKinnon has been branded an evil hacker and could end up at Guantanamo Bay. Oliver Lindberg caught up with him shortly before his extradition ruling

This article originally appeared in issue 152 of .net magazine in 2006.

Gary McKinnon hasn’t had the best of times lately. The US is accusing the self-described ‘bumbling computer nerd’ from London of committing the biggest military computer hack of all time. Since his arrest in 2002 Gary has been battling extradition to the US. If the worst comes to the worst he could face up to 60 years in prison and fines of up to $1.75 million. “I’ve bitten my nails down to the quick,” he tells .net before his appearance at the Infosecurity Europe trade show in London, where he drew a packed seminar theatre. “There’s a constant background stress and great worries about the future. You never fully relax. I haven’t been fully relaxed in four years. I’m thinking: ‘Crikey! This could be the end of life as you know it. You could be rotting in some crappy old jail.’ The times are pretty dark.” Still, Gary has managed to hang on to his sense of humour and recently joked that the orange Guantanamo Bay jump suits would clash with his red hair.

His prosecutors claim that in the course of a year the softly-spoken 40-year-old hacked into dozens of computers at NASA, the US Army, Navy, Air Force and Department of Defense and caused damage of around $700,000 (£375,000). In one instance he’s alleged to have deleted files at a United States Naval Weapon Station shortly after the 9/11 attacks, rendering the base’s entire network of more than 300 machines inoperable. While Gary modestly admits he got access to secret systems, he denies causing damage. “The damage accusations are ridiculous,” he sighs. “I found out that for it to be an extraditable offence it has to be worth one year in prison. For it to be worth one year in prison, it has to be $5,000 worth of damage. As if by magic every single computer I was on caused $5,000 worth of damage… Completely preposterous! If you read the indictment, it says ‘with malicious intent’. This is completely untrue. I was interested in maintaining a quiet presence on these machines.”

Science fiction or fact?

What Gary did at the computer at his girlfriend’s aunt’s house using a 56k modem, while drinking beer and smoking cannabis, he called research at the time. He never saw himself as a hacker and never socialised or chatted with other hackers. Obsessed with science fiction since childhood, he was convinced that the US was suppressing alien technology and evidence of UFOs — not exactly the motif of your stereotypical cyber terrorist.

As Gary calmly talks about why he had a snoop around and what he saw, it becomes obvious his beliefs are genuine. Years ago he read a book by The Disclosure Project, which includes 400 witness testimonies ranging from civilian air traffic control to people who were in charge of whether to use nuclear missiles. All of these people said there was anti gravity, which ‘totally swung’ it for Gary. One of those reports was from a photographic scientist for NASA, who worked at the Johnson Space Center and said they regularly airbrush UFO images from hi-res satellite imaging, so Gary went in and had a look.

Getting access wasn’t difficult as many local administrator passwords were shockingly left blank. And he wasn’t even the only one. “I did a network status command on every machine I was on,” he explains, “and you saw a whole list of connections from other countries. I looked up the IPs, there are no military bases in those countries, so it was definitely unauthorised access.” Scanning the networks was mostly very boring. But then he found that what the photographic scientist had said was true: “There were folders called ‘Processed’ and ‘Unprocessed’. Bearing in mind I was on 56k dialup, these pictures were 200 or 300 megabytes in a NASA proprietary format — they’re not JPEGs or GIFs. But I managed to see three quarters of one and it looked like no manufacturing means I’ve ever seen in my life. It looked like an elongated satellite with domes above, below and to the left and to the right. No rivets, no seams, none of the usual signs of man-made machinery. But that’s when the guy at the machines at NASA saw the mouse move. He right-clicked the LAN icon and chose Disconnect — just when I found what I’d been after for two years!”

For the greater good…

Although his friends told him to stop, Gary was now completely hooked and never really stopped to think about the results his actions could have. “I was definitely addicted,” he admits. “Also, I felt I was doing it for the greater good. I thought that if there is that technology, the public should have it, not some secret department or a secret government.” Since he thought he wasn’t causing any of the claimed damage, Gary thought that if he did get caught, he’d just get ‘a slap on the wrist’. He says: “I reckoned maybe they might even thank me because I could say ‘look at all these blank passwords, you were lucky it was me, not al-Qaeda’.”

As part of his bail conditions Gary isn’t even allowed to access the internet at the moment. “It’s strange”, he explains, “because after my first arrest in 2002 I was able to use the internet for three years until my recent re-arrest.” Gary didn’t have an actual internet account but was allowed access to it, so he could go to a friend’s house. Now he can’t even email. “It’s like losing a limb, isn’t it? At first, I was like ‘what am I going to do?!’ Now my mum and friends who have broadband do a lot of emails for me.”

Not many people actually believe Gary posed a real threat to the US and supporters have set up a Free Gary McKinnon website. More than 150 MPs have also signed a motion expressing concerns about the controversial — and unratified — Extradition Act of 2003 that allows the US to demand the extradition of suspects without the need to present prima facie evidence.

The quiet superhacker himself just can’t quite believe how big his case has become. “The US is still being attacked and they still haven’t tightened up their security. So it seems like lessons aren’t being learned. Rather than look at their own bad practice, they want to highlight people like me and use me as a scapegoat. I think it’d be fair to drop the case because I’ve lost so much already. These past four years have been a trial in themselves, a sentence in themselves. I lost my long-term girlfriend of 14 years, my flat, my career in IT… When the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit originally arrested me, they said ‘you might do six months community service’. That sounds like a nice sentence. Now it’s gone up to 60 years in prison — a bit of a joke.”

Since this interview a district judge has given the green light for Gary’s extradition to stand trial for his alleged crimes in the US. The final decision is now up to John Reid, the Home Secretary. Gary McKinnon won’t give up easily, though. His supporters have launched a pledge to make a representation to the Home Secretary on his behalf, which almost 600 people have signed. Meanwhile Gary is happy to take his case as far as the European Court of Human Rights and is currently preparing his appeal.

On 16 October 2012, after a series of legal proceedings in Britain, the extradition order to the United States was finally withdrawn. Read the full story here. Photography by Rob Scott.

This article originally appeared in issue 152 of .net magazine in 2006.