Don't shoot the messenger

The case of Gary McKinnon, the NASA hacker, has become a distraction from the serious business of cybersecurity

We will have to wait — again — to discover what fate awaits the hacker, Gary McKinnon. On Wednesday, a judge postponed making a decision on whether McKinnon is to be extradited to the US to face trial on charges that he deliberately disrupted the computer systems of various US Government agencies at a time when those systems were required to protect the US.

The charges amount to terrorism, an emotive subject for the US. These charges should have been thrown out at the hearing on Wednesday: while there's no doubt McKinnon accessed the systems and did some damage, that does not amount to a serious crime.

Such damage, as McKinnon himself makes clear, was only damage in the sense that it damaged the credibility of some of the US military's key systems. McKinnon has always maintained that his activities were harmless. He was not seeking to undermine the US defence systems — he was trying to find ET.

Is McKinnon a harmless crackpot, or was he a serious threat to the US government? Opinion is divided, not least among the readers of ZDNet UK. Local readers see him as harmless, Americans ones beg to differ. Breaking into computer systems used to be a harmless crime, they say, but now it isn't. Vandalising code is no longer considered clever, it is cases pain to others and a mess that IT professionals do not like having to clean up. He should be punished, they argue, and severely. Well, how serious was the security breech? Were the system managers — and their managers in turn — sacked?

There is no shortage of really serious crime online, just of resources to deal with it. In March, Interpol highlighted the tremendous problems it is having dealing with cybercrime. On Wednesday, leading Government and Police figures made similar pleas for the tools to fight cybercrime in all shapes and forms. They are not receiving them.

Whatever McKinnon is, he is a massive waste of resources desperately needed to stop real damage. The extradition request is an example of American thoughtlessness coupled with a wish for Hollywood-style retribution, and utterly unworthy to be called justice. The Americans should back off and worry about the people who can really hurt us, instead of chasing after evil phantasms from a bad B movie.

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