A Hollywood blockbuster inspired Gary McKinnon to hack the world’s most secure computer system. Unlike his fictional counterpart, the US authorities are in no mood to forgive him. Nigel Burton reports
IN the film War Games, David Lightman, a highly intelligent underachiever, played by Matthew Broderick, unknowingly hacks into the US missile defence computer.
The security breach could not have happened at a worse time coming, as it does, as the US Air Force decides to change from a human-directed missile launch system to one controlled purely by a computer.
The computer system has been designed to learn by playing gaming simulations and David thinks he has hacked into a software company.
When the teenager selects to play Global Thermonuclear War, he almost triggers World War Three. As the US and Russia prepare to launch their missiles, the youngster has to go head-to-head with an unbeatable machine with the fate of the world at stake.
Viewed today, the technology in War Games – cathode ray tube displays, green screens, a computer the size of a room and DOS-based software looks hopelessly dated, but the concept that a bright youth could hack into the world’s most popular computer system is frighteningly real.
War Games inspired a generation of computer geeks. It coined the term “firewall”
as a description for a barrier designed to prevent unauthorised intrusion by a computer and when the first hacker convention opened for business in 1993 it was called Defcon – a nod to the movie which popularised the term used to describe the US military’s readiness for war.
The Cold War was coming to an end but the cyber war was just beginning.
Born in Glasgow in February 1966, Gary McKinnon had been developing software since he was given an Atari 400 console at the age of 14. While most youngsters used it to play computer games, he created graphics and wrote programs.
McKinnion was fascinated by the scenario painted in War Games. He didn’t see the film as a piece of harmless Hollywood entertainment so much as a call to arms. When he read a controversial book – The Hacker’s Handbook, by Hugo Cornwall – on how to break into computers, he was inspired to try it himself. He was obsessed by UFOs and a subscriber to the conspiracy theory that aliens were recovered by the Americans at Roswell, in New Mexico, in 1947.
Inspired by War Games, the 46-year old, who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, set to work. From the bedroom of his girlfriend’s aunt’s house in north London, he hacked into 97 US military computers.
Between 2001 and 2002, he explored computers at the Pentagon and Nasa looking for evidence of extra-terrestrials. He didn’t find any but, according to the US government, he did leave military computer systems unusable immediately after the September 11 terror attacks.
The US military alleges that he caused £550,000 worth of damage and left 300 computers at a US navy weapons station unusable. He was accused of using his computer skills to gain access to 53 US army computers, including those used for national defence and security, and 26 US navy computers, including those at US Naval Weapons Station Earle, which is responsible for replenishing munitions and supplies for the deployed Atlantic fleet. He was also charged with hacking into 16 Nasa computers and one US Defence Department computer.
Mark Summers, an official representing the US government, told a London court that McKinnon’s hacking was “intentional and calculated to influence and affect the US government by intimidation and coercion”.
US prosecutor Paul McNulty accused him of using the codename Solo to commit the “biggest military hack of all time”.
McKINNON’S hacking was curtailed in 2002 as he tried to download a grainy black-and-white photograph he believed was an alien spacecraft on a Nasa computer housed in the Johnson Space Centre, in Houston, Texas. But before the download was complete (laughably he was using a 56k modem and not a broadband connection), McKinnon was disconnected.
In his enthusiasm, McKinnon had committed a huge mistake – he had used his own email address – a basic error which led law enforcement officers straight to his door.
McKinnon never denied that he wandered around the computer networks of a wide number of US military institutions.
But he always maintained that he was motivated by curiosity and that he only managed to get into the networks because of lax security.
Supporters say he acted through “naivety” as a result of his Asperger’s and should not be considered a criminal.
His case has attracted the backing of celebrities, politicians and other campaigners over the ten years he has been trying to avoid extradition.
Pink Floyd musician David Gilmour – who sang on a Chicago protest song in support of McKinnon – Sting, Peter Gabriel, model Emma Noble and the actress Julie Christie all sprung to his defence.
As the case dragged on it became a political headache. Lord Carlile, the former independent advisor on anti-terror laws, said extraditing McKinnon would be cruel and unconscionable when he could be prosecuted in the UK.
DAVID CAMERON, who has raised the case twice with US President Barack Obama, said in opposition that he was far from convinced that extradition was the right course of action. His deputy, Nick Clegg, also said there was no reason why McKinnon should not be tried in the UK. So perhaps Theresa May’s decision not to extradite McKinnon should come as no surprise.
It will now be up to the Director of Public Prosecutions to decide whether a trial should be conducted in the UK.
McKinnon has signed a statement accepting that his hacking constituted an offence under the UK’s Computer Misuse Act 1990, but he has been under arrest for such a long time that a custodial sentence is highly unlikely.
He also still believes the US Government is involved in an extra-terrestrial cover-up.
At the climax of War Games, the computer “learns” that the only way to win a nuclear war is not to play the game – a lesson McKinnon has learnt the hard way.