Calls grow to save autistic Scots hacker from threat of US prison

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PRESSURE is growing on the Home Secretary to step in and halt the extradition of a Scots-born autistic computer hacker who is facing up to 60 years in a US prison.

Shadow justice minister David Burrowes MP was today set to put down a motion in parliament calling on Jacqui Smith to review the medical records of Gary McKinnon who is only weeks away from being sent to the US.

Mr McKinnon's supporters claim he was merely looking for information on his UFO hobby rather than being "the biggest military computer hacker of all time" as the US claims.

The supporters say the unemployed UFO obsessive, who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, has become a recluse and is on suicide watch after becoming depressed while awaiting his looming extradition.

In the US he faces life in prison for using his dial-up modem to hack into computer systems at the Pentagon and at Nasa between 2001 and 2003.

The Glasgow-born 42-year-old went from being a cannabis-smoking hacker looking for conspiracy theories on UFOs to America's most wanted cyber-terrorist after 9/11.

So far, an appeal to the House of Lords has been rejected and now Mr McKinnon's legal team is waiting for a judgment on a judicial review which it has asked for in light of his recent diagnosis with Asperger's.

A decision on the review is due imminently. Should this be turned down, he will have just ten days to pack his bags, possibly never to return.

Mr Burrowes, his MP, is demanding his extradition be halted until his condition has been more carefully assessed. Last night he said: "My concern is also over this extradition treaty where UK citizens are being plucked out of our country without evidence and facing the full force of the American law."

The Home Secretary is also facing pressure to ensure Mr McKinnon is at least allowed to return to the UK on bail before the many months that could await him before a trial.

Mr Burrowes pointed out nationals of countries such as Israel and the Netherlands are allowed to serve their sentences at home, and asked why Mr McKinnon has to be sent to America.

A letter from Lord West, the Security Minister, received by Mr Burrowes yesterday showed the government had no plans to stand up to the US authority's demands. "The starting point you will understand, is that the UK has important obligations in the area of extradition. It takes those obligations seriously," Lord West wrote.

Mr McKinnon's father, Glasgow scaffolder Charlie McKinnon, insisted his son was "no terrorist" but a lonely hacker who had cracked military systems using a dial-up modem. He said: "I have seen the computer he used. It is a piece of junk. It is incredible he was able to get into the American system with it."

His mother, Janis Sharp, broke down in tears while speaking to The Scotsman. "Why is the UK the only country in the world where it allows its people to be picked up without prima facie evidence? Why would she (Jacqui Smith] not ask for bail?" Ms Sharp said.

"He has really withdrawn into himself. He was optimistic but what really shocked him was the House of Lords' verdict.

He was a stupid boy but he is no cyber- terrorist."

Ms Sharp has been swamped by support for her son however, not least from American comedy actor Dan Ackroyd and Scottish artist Peter Howson, both of whom suffer from Asperger's.

Case comes as US gets tougher on tech 'crime'

COMPUTER hackers face ever-stiffer sentences in America, as Washington tries to play catch up with technology "crime".

Since 2002, hackers have faced up to life in prison if deemed to be acting "maliciously".

The House of Representatives overwhelming passed the Cyber Security Enhancement Act in that year.

It also expanded police powers to conduct internet or telephone eavesdropping without first obtaining a court order.

Gary McKinnon is not the first British hacker to face the force of American law.

In 1997, Mathew Bevan was accused of breaking into US military systems. But he escaped without punishment when his case at Woolwich Crown Court was dropped after a long legal battle.

Questions have also been raised over why the UK is sending its citizens to the US for hearings on scant evidence.

Both the Israeli and Dutch governments have tried their computer hackers caught in US sites at home.

The US is currently trying to extradite one Israeli hacker, Ehud Tenenbaum, from Canada over allegations that he hacked into financial institutions. He escaped extradition in 1998 after hacking into the Pentagon.

Gerri Peev

The gifted child who became obsessed with investigating UFOs

GARY McKinnon was a gifted child. He started speaking in full sentences at ten months and was reading books by the age of three.

But his keen interest in computers and UFOs would eventually land him in trouble as a wanted criminal.

Born in Glasgow in 1966, he left Scotland as a six-year-old after his parents split up. His father, Charlie, still lives in Scotland while his mother is based in London. His stepfather, from Bonnybridge, sparked an interest in UFO's, after he related a dream to the boy, in which he saw "huge ships" near his Stirlingshire home.

He owned his first computer when he was 14, but chose hairdressing as a career. At 15, he joined the British UFO Research Association, which further entrenched his firm belief in aliens.

Two years later, he went to see the film WarGames , in which a computer enthusiast's skills lead him into trouble with the Pentagon. After hacking into Oxford University's network, he managed to crack the US Space Command.

By November 2000, he was hooked, and quit his job and spent his time hacking from his North London flat.

His girlfriend at the time grew increasingly worried. He stopped washing and spent hours in front of his computer.

In November 2002 he was finally caught, after leaving notes on computers of military experts, and now faces charges of hacking into computers of the US army, navy, air force and defence department, and Nasa. He also faces claims that he obtained secret files that "could be useful to the enemy".

American prosecutors say his hacking caused $700,000 (430,000) in damage to government systems and that he deliberately set out to destroy files not long after the 9/11 attacks.

He insists he only wanted to look around, rather than damage any files.

He is now unemployed and banned from going on the internet.

Mr McKinnon was arrested under the Computer Misuse Act but no charges have been brought against him in the UK.

His online name was "Solo" and Mr McKinnon has described himself as a "bumbling computer nerd".