NASA hacker ready for a long battle

Gary McKinnon could face a long fight through the courts, possibly all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, if his appeal against extradition to the US on hacking charges is rejected

Waiting for the decision on his extradition hearing, expected on 10 May, Gary McKinnon has steeled himself for the possibility that the suspense may last much longer than a mere week and a half.

The US authorities first moved to have the so-called "NASA hacker" extradited in November 2002. McKinnon was then arrested last June and formally told he would be extradited pending a hearing.

Two short court hearings have since taken place, and it is widely expected McKinnon will be told next week either that he is to be extradited to the US or that he is free to leave the court.

McKinnon rates his chances of avoiding extradition to the US as "50:50". "It really could go either way," McKinnon told ZDNet UK.

Even if the court decides he should be extradited on wide-ranging charges that he gained illegal access to, and made unauthorised modifications to, 53 computers belonging to the US government, that does not necessarily mean he will be taken to the US immediately.

There is an appeals process against extradition that could be lengthy. McKinnon is prepared to go as far as the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

His biggest concern is that if he loses on 10 May, the US authorities could ask that he be jailed while his case moves through the appeal courts.

"I was in Brixton only for a short time [when he was remanded in custody after he was initially charged]. It wasn’t very nice," McKinnon said.

While awaiting the decision, McKinnon appeared at the Infosecurity 2006 show last Thursday, where he shared a panel with penetration tester Ivan Ristic, security expert and former US intelligence chief Bob Ayers, and Robert Schifreen, one-time hacker.

Schifreen is now an author -- his latest book is Defeating the Hacker. He put McKinnon’s actions into context for the audience when he described his own activities as a hacker. His most famous exploit was in the 1980s and became known as the "Great Prince Philip Prestel hack".

Schifteen hacked into the Prestel system (a public bulletin board system using character-based graphics) while the Queen’s husband was watching a demonstration in front of a television audience of millions. It displayed a cheeky message for His Royal Highness and Schifreen was arrested soon after.

"Those were more innocent times," he told the audience, adding that the police had no real idea how to deal with what we now know as Internet crime.

While McKinnon looked on, he could only be rueful that what was once "a bit of fun" in another era is now seen as being anything but.

Click here to read our interview with McKinnon conducted after his re-arrest last year.