Gary McKinnon, the British hacker facing an extradition hearing in nine days time has warned other hacking wannabees not to follow his example.
McKinnon, who faces a possible 72 years in a US prison if he is forced to stand trial in America for entering over 53 US military computer systems, is terrified by the prospect.
“I was not doing anything – I wasn’t damaging anything,” he said. “I was just looking. I did not think about the legal side of things and now I am facing the prospect of extreme violence in some US jail.”
This is the chilling future that McKinnon wants to bring home to the many well-wishers sending him messages via websites that have sprung up to support him.
“One thing that concerns me at the moment is that lots of young people sending emails seem impressed by what I have done and find it exciting and interesting.
“Believe you me my current position is wholly unexciting and very, very serious. I would like to say to all aspiring young hackers, do not do it.
“Get on with your life, get good grades at school and get a job in computer security if that’s your interest. If you are only interested in the mechanisms of computer security then build your own network and practice on that.”
McKinnon, who practised on computer systems that ranged from Fort Meade, near Baltimore, home to the US National Security Agency, (an organisation bigger and even more secretive than the CIA), to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, is unfortunately, only too well qualified to comment.
Speaking in a series of intensely personal interviews given over the last week McKinnon told the Register about the disaster that his life has become due to his twin obsessions, computing and UFO research.
“The worst aspect of what is going on in my life is the effect it is having on the people that I love, especially my parents.
“It’s like looking at another person when I look back at how I was in 2000 – 2001. I was completely obsessed, uncaring about myself and those around me and yet very concerned with the outside world of George Bush and the US military.”
At that time, McKinnon, was on a mission to prove that a technology called ‘anti-gravity’ had been developed by the US and was being kept secret so the US could exploit it rather than releasing it for the good of the world.
“Anti- gravity operates via ‘free-energy’ and free energy could solve almost all of humanity’s problems. We could end the oil wars, we could end famine, we could end a lot of human suffering.”
McKinnon has an explosion of curly, deep copper coloured hair around features that can only be called elfin. Intelligent and articulate, he likens his quest for US military information on autonomous robotic programs and a secret US space base that he believes exists, to an addiction to computer gaming.
“The kind of addiction I had to hacking was very similar to how game-playing made you feel, gaining access to deeper and deeper security layers was just like the structure of a computer game. This was the best computer game that I had ever seen but it was real.
“Maybe it’s because of the full control that you have over the machine but I found that I was getting something that I needed. I used to play first person shooter games because I got that thrill of the hunter and the hunted and I think that’s something that men need.
“I don’t think it’s any accident that one of the books about computer addiction is called ‘Computer Widows’ because it is mainly men that fall prey to the box.”
McKinnon was a classic victim. Caught by his obsessions he admits that lost touch with reality and morality.
When friends came around and he showed them that he had gained control of CCTV systems that allowed him to watch the movement of US military personnel as they worked, those same friends warned him that he should not be doing what he was doing. But McKinnon says he was hooked.
“It was affecting my life badly. I wasn’t washing or eating and I was spending most of my life in a dressing gown sitting in front of the computer.
“Once when I was playing an on-line computer game called ‘Unreal Tournament’ I had a cigarette in my mouth while I was trying to capture the flag that is the point of the game and I was circling the point where I had to get in, which involved running along the side of a cliff.
“The smoke was getting in my eyes and I was so focussed on what I was doing that I threw the cigarette over the side of the cliff – only I didn’t – I threw it at the computer screen.”
The end, when it came, was a relief.
On March 19, 2002, Dectective Jeff Donson of the National High Tech Crime Unit knocked on the door of his flat in Crouch End and was let in by his then girlfriend, Tamsin, just after 8 am in the morning.
“It felt strangely dreamlike. I had been playing a computer game called ‘Space Empires 4’ until the early hours so I had only had about an hours sleep and I was very groggy then I woke up to find this man about two feet away from mine telling me he was Jeff Donson and I felt suddenly relaxed, like it was all over.
“I was suffering from an obsession that was destroying my life. I wasn’t pulling my weight in the house and it was breaking up my relationship, I wasn’t bringing in any money and my girlfriend was paying the phone bills.”
From that point on McKinnon realised the awful cost of his obsession.
“I have been paying the price of it ever since and so have the people around me. For three years now, both in terms of my own stress and disappointment and the stress and disappointment of those close to me.”
Now genuinely remorseful, McKinnon is keen to make amends.
“When I heard about the London bombings and that someone had claimed responsibility on a website my first thought was – ‘why don’t they hack the server, copy the data over, read the logs and find out where the message was posted from’?
“I think there’s a future in fighting terrorism via the internet, because communications are fundamental to a war on terror.
“I know various Governments have their hacking teams and I could be of great value operating as part of one of them rather than rotting in a jail cell.” The Register