Monday, August 3, 2009

U.F.Oh No

Gary McKinnon seems to be a bit of an idiot. But then again, so am I. He apparently believes without a flicker of doubt that not only are aliens visiting our world, but that their existence is being covered up by the United States government, among others. A lot of people share this belief despite the fact that there isn't any evidence to support it. Because I was once unhappy with the state of reality and wished to live in a science fiction universe of spaceships and holodecks, I used to believe the same thing. Hell, I'm still unhappy with the state of reality and want to live in a science fiction universe of spaceships and holodecks. I've just honed my critical thinking skills. But for those who haven't, the UFO conspiracy trap is an easy one in which to snag themselves. There are mountains of poorly photocopied documents and blurry photographs of nothing to back up the conspiracy. There are UFO websites with more text than the entire Wheel of Time series. It's a mythology, and there's nothing geeks love more than an obsessively detailed myth.

Gary McKinnon is one of those geeks. He's also been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism that tends to heighten obsessive and compulsive tendencies. Convinced the U.S. Government was withholding alien energy technology, McKinnon bought a book on hacking and decided to infiltrate American military computers looking for evidence of the coverup. Because he's not a very good hacker, McKinnon was caught. Now, he's being accused of perpetrating "the biggest military computer hack of all time" and faces extradition to the U.S. for trial, even though he's a British citizen.

Author, documentarian, and Amateur Scientist Podcast friend Jon Ronson has been following the McKinnon case and recently wrote an article for The Guardian detailing the circumstances of McKinnon's arrest and apparent failure to avoid extradition. There are several layers to this story, one of which being the draconian extradition treaty being used against McKinnon. But I'm not as concerned with the terms of the treaty as I am with the general tone coming from some corners of the skeptical community regarding this case.

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy wrote a level-headed analysis of the facts at hand, but many others haven't shown any sympathy at all toward McKinnon. It's one thing to decry McKinnon for flaunting the law and committing electronic espionage. This is a serious crime deserving of some punishment. But it's quite another to ridicule him for simply being a UFO "nut".

Like I said, I've been there. I was also fiddling around online in the days before every home had a modem-enabled PC, much less access to the web. McKinnon started trying to hack military systems in 1995. It may not seem like that long ago, but those were the wild west days of the Internet. Network security was often completely overlooked, and it was relatively easy for computer hobbyists to exploit weaknesses to gain access they shouldn't have. If I had the motivation to get off my ass and read a book on hacking, I might have tried to poke around for UFO files myself. It's easy to forget things like legal consequence when you're alone in your basement with tools not many others have. I stole my high school's ISP password, used their account to download porn through a text browser, and didn't think twice about it. (Well, not guilty thoughts, at least. I thought about those grainy, pixelated booby pics many, many times.)

Granted, McKinnon broke the law. He admits as much. But he didn't do so with malicious intent. The U.S. government claims his invasions cost millions $700,000 in remediation and security fees. That's a lot of wasted taxpayer money, but so was the federal push of abstinence-only education programs. And no one's suggesting George W. Bush should go to jail for that.

In his article, Ronson writes that McKinnon offered to help the government beef up its security in exchange for leniency. He was refused, he says, because the military believed any idiot could have done what he did. If true, this doesn't speak very highly of the U.S. military. If any idiot could breach national security, shouldn't we have paid to plug those holes anyway? It seems like McKinnon may have done the country a favor.

Of course, any claims McKinnon makes for himself should be taken with a grain or two of salt. Writer Kevin Anderson has an article detailing some of the false accusations made by McKinnon's legal team in his own defense. But while it's not unreasonable to think someone in as desperate a situation as McKinnon's would resort to lying for sympathy, none of the disputed claims do a thing to change the circumstances of this case. The issue here isn't with whether or not McKinnon could be declared an enemy combatant (he could be, though this is very, very unlikely). It's with whether McKinnon should be sent to prison at all for an effectively harmless bit of idiotic obsessiveness. The same goes for doubts about the severity of the sentence the U.S. seeks to obtain against McKinnon.

In seeking to debunk claims that an embarrassed military wants to put McKinnon to death, the government says that McKinnon will likely receive something along the lines of a three year sentence, only six months to a year of which would be served in a U.S. prison. If true, this begs the question of why they want to extradite him at all. Yes, he committed a crime against America, but why go to the huge expense of trying him in a U.S. court and entering him into our prison system when he'll just be released to his home country after a few months? If wasted money was the extent of the damages caused by McKinnon, why waste even more trying to prosecute him?

Gary McKinnon did something monumentally stupid because he bought into a fallacious belief in a massive conspiracy theory. U.S. prosecutors should be asking themselves if this crime is worth ruining a man's life over. What's worth more: five or six figures in I.T. costs or a little bit of human compassion? And UFO conspiracy skeptics should be wondering whether their scorn is better directed at those who create phony documents and photographs or the dupes like McKinnon and myself who've fallen for them.