McKinnon should be scared; so should America

A disproportionate punishment for the NASA hacker will only incite more, and most likely less benign, people to follow in his footsteps

"I am practically hung and quartered already" – Gary McKinnon, speaking in London on Wednesday as a UK judge decides he should be extradited to the US to face hacking charges

The unemployed North Londoner's predictions for his fate are morbid but his instincts are sound. If his appeal fails, it is unlikely he will find mercy abroad.

But while McKinnon knows what will happen to him, US authorities show no equivalent insight. Harsh injustice breeds righteous anger, and the world is full of hackers who will be only too eager to protest their disgust in practical and most unwelcome ways. Very few of them will be as easy to find as the hapless and harmless McKinnon, whose good nature amplifies his plight.

A good way to protect your critical national infrastructure is to reduce the number of people wishing to do it harm, not provide them with needless martyrs and motivation. Actions like this are akin to President Bush's "Bring it on!" brag to Iraqi insurgents in 2003, and may have equally infamous consequences.

Such considerations would matter less if the real lesson of McKinnon's activities had been learned: don't leave your system security in a mess.
McKinnon claims that in one system he found the local administrator's password was blank, which he found understandably "frightening". But we have no evidence that the authorities really took his actions seriously: where is the widespread reform, where the sackings and new blood, that would normally follow from a breach of this claimed magnitude?

While McKinnon clearly broke the law and deserves some kind of punishment as a result, the US doesn't have the best track record in handing out retribution proportional to the crime committed.

If extradited and convicted, McKinnon could be sentenced to up to 70 years in jail. That's a scarily long time -- perhaps not long enough for the US to realise that bad justice hurts those who deal it just as surely as those on the receiving end.