What's All This Then?

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

I’m not sure which side I’m on in the Gary McKinnon case.. He’s the nitwit who thought it was perfectly O.K. to sit at his computer back in 2001 and 2002 and break into US government and military computer networks, causing several hundred thousand dollars worth of damage.

I made known my view of hackers and what should happen to them if and when they are caught, back in August, 2003 - and the title of my comments then was Hang All The Hackers. I didn’t mean it literally, though there are times when I think it may be the only appropriate punishment for these cyberspace criminals. Specially when they hijack MY computer to send out junk mail, causing my service provider to temporarily block my outgoing e-mail.

So why am I equivocating about "which side I’m on?" Only because McKinnon is an Englishman and while his hacking was done over here, he was in England when he did it. So there is some question about where he should be tried for his crime. The US has requested extradition and a British judge has now ruled in favor of that request - having received assurances that McKinnon won’t finish up in Guantanamo as an enemy alien fighting on behalf of anti-American terrorists.

McKinnon is appealing that ruling. He wants to be tried in the UK and he has a lot of support - including a "Free Gary" blog and other assorted supportive web sites.

I suppose it isn’t that easy a question to decide. The crime was committed in England - or at least originated there - but it was a crime against networks in the United States. There isn’t any question about guilt. McKinnon did the dirty deed. But there is some argument about how much of a crime it was and what kind of punishment might be imposed by an American court as opposed to legal authorities in England. Obviously, those who are supporting the hacker seem to think that he’s less likely to get a "fair" trial in the United States and that he’s more likely to receive a greater punishment here than if he were to be tried and found guilty in the UK.

I have no sympathy for hackers - and this one is no sympathetic figure as you might gather from this report of an interview published in the Guardian last July. He should absolutely get slapped with a jail sentence and there should be as much publicity about it as possible in publications that computer nerds read - either the print kind or on-line sites that they visit. They need to know that the Internet isn’t a toy for them to play with and that my computer is private property. If you come in without an invitation and cause mischief - that’s breaking and entering and you’re a criminal.

But while I have interest in this story because it’s a hacker case and computer hacking is a form of terrorism that needs to be fought with as much vigor as we fight against violent terrorists - what drew me to the story was the sub text - the image that that the United States projects to the rest of the world today as a place where an accused criminal can no longer be assured of getting a fair shake.

It’s Guentanamo - and what the name stands for. In times past, there would be little chance that an Englishman accused of committing a major crime in the United States could successfully resist an extradition request. But times have changed. Fear of being spirited away the moment one sets foot in the country - being "tried" by a secret court - or not tried at all - and then disappearing behind the barriers of a Guantanamo Bay detention center - or some other prison facility - not to be seen or heard from in years - gives jurists in other countries pause.

In McKinnon’s case, the English judge needed assurances that he wasn’t a candidate for the Guantanamo treatment. He still faces the possibility of as much as 70 years - a sentence that amounts to life - but the judge was O.K. with that possibility - as long as it was the result of a legitimate and fair trial. It was the specter of the Guantanamo approach that gave the judge pause.

What does that say about what has happened to our country? That our closest friends are reluctant to submit one of their citizens to our justice system without guarantees that they will be tried in one of our recognized and open courts - and not be subjected to our "new" way of handling people we think don’t like us or wish us harm - open ended detention without charge, trial or representation!!

Much as I consider computer hacking a crime that should carry some real punishment and not a slap on the wrist - I’m leaning in the direction of hoping that the British Home Secretary denies the extradition request and orders McKinnon to be tried in a British court. That’s how much faith I’ve lost in our system of justice under the Bush administration.