Should the U.S. hire the hacker that broke into the Pentagon?

British hacker Gary McKinnon has finally lost his latest High Court bid to avoid extradition to the United States to face charges for breaking into US military and Nasa computers in 2001 and 2002. McKinnon was tracked down and arrested under the Computer Misuse Act by the UK National Hi-Tech Crime Unit. After his arrest, and without a lawyer present, McKinnon admitted to hacking, but denies it was malicious or that he caused damage costing $800,000 (£487,000). The argument of his lawyers was not that he shouldn’t be tried, but that he should be tried in the UK and that his extreme Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, should be taken into account, especially since it could lead to suicide, if he was to be extradited.

However, the judges said extradition was “a lawful and proportionate response to his offending”. He faces up to 70 years in prison if convicted in the U.S. of what prosecutors have called “the biggest military computer hack of all time”. He accessed 97 government computers belonging to organisations including the US Navy and Nasa. Justifiably the U.S. is pretty sensitive about these things and under a 2003 treaty, agreed in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks, the U.S. is able to extradite a British citizen if it can prove to the UK courts “reasonable suspicion”.

Now, exactly what was this hack? McKinnon has always insisted he was looking for classified documents on UFOs which he believed the US authorities had suppressed. This is not a normal guy here. This is a mega geek who believed in UFOs. We’re not talking terrorist material. He’s been described as a 43-year-old “UFO eccentric”. There has been a “Free Gary” campaign backed by 100 MPs and celebrities like Bob Geldof and Chrissie Hynde.

As you’ll find on his Wikipedia page, he used the name ‘Solo’. The US authorities claim he deleted critical files, from operating systems, which shut down the US Army’s Military District of Washington network of 2,000 computers for 24 hours. As well as deleting US Navy Weapons logs, which rendered a naval bases network of 300 computers inoperable after the September 11th terrorist attacks. McKinnon has denied causing any damage, argued he accessed open, unsecured machines, and says the financial loss claimed by the US was created to justify the “reasonable suspicion” for extradition.

He also left this message, quite clearly the ramblings of something of a consipracy theorist nut: “US foreign policy is akin to government-sponsored terrorism these days? It was not a mistake that there was a huge security stand-down on September 11 last year…I am SOLO. I will continue to disrupt at the highest levels.”

You can just imagine Gary – like so many borderline-genius geeks all over the world – hacking into computers from a darkened room in his flat in Wood Green, north London, leaving dumb, self-aggrandising messsages born largely of his Asperger’s condition.

So, what should the U.S. do. It’s quite simple really. They should hire him. Use him in the same way that the skills of so many black-hat hackers have been turned towards contributing to a network’s security, not undermining it.

In fact McKinnon’s case reminds me very much of the story of John Forbes Nash, Jr., the subject of the 2001 movie A Beautiful Mind starring Russel Crowe.

Nash was a mathematical genius who suffered from extreme paranoia, paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression. He seemed to believe that there was an organisation chasing him, in which all men wore red ties. He also mailed letters to foreign embassies in Washington, declaring that he was establishing a world government.

However, he worked at MIT and Princeton’s mathematics department, and is today recognised as a leading thinker on game theory, one of the principles the U.S. government used in their strategy to deal with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He shared the 1994 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

Should Gary McKinnon therefore be left to rot in a U.S. jail for the rest of his life? Or should his skills be put to better use?