'Biggest-ever' hacker is London IT expert

A British IT specialist whose obsession with UFOs allegedly compelled him to hack into at least 90 American military computers across five top-secret departments is facing 70 years in jail.

Gary McKinnon, 39, is accused of causing $700,000 of damage to the computer networks of the US Army, Navy, Air Force, Pentagon and NASA; over a 12-month hacking spree masterminded from his home computer.

Setting up the op from North London, it is alleged that the unemployed network administrator first targeted the systems in February 2001, so he could find evidence that proved the US was hiding the existence of aliens.

Lawyers representing McKinnon said his pacifist beliefs also motivated him to test the strength of US security systems, and expose their weaknesses if they were not up to scratch.

Speaking at Bow Street Magistrates' Court, they added that attempts by American authorities to extradite McKinnon were coming directly from the Bush administration and vowed to oppose all such requests.

Alluding to the poor treatment of British citizens at Guantanamo Bay, lawyers promised their client would "vigorously" contest proceedings to bring charges under United States legislation.

Currently however McKinon has been arrested under the 1990 Computer Misuse Act, after which his legal team successfully reduced his bail security from £10,000 to £5,000. His family paid the fee.

But prosecutors said the hacking operation, which at its peak shut down the military's IT system in Washington just seven days after the September 11 attacks, represented a "grave intrusion into vital" defence systems.

Another alleged attack, 12 days after September 11, on Earle navel base in New Jersey, where the US Atlantic Fleet is armed and supplied, is thought to have caused the shutdown of 300 computers for a week.

In addition, prosecutors claimed McKinnon caused "unauthorised modifications" to computers located in the Pentagon, as well as previous indictments revealing he broke into the IT network of two public libraries, and six privately owned companies.

Paul Mc Nulty, the Virginia state attorney prosecuting McKinnon, described the alleged activities as the "biggest hack of military computer ever, at least detected."

The grand jury indictment against McKinnon explained how the accused used a downloadable piece of software, thought to be Hungarian in origin, which scanned thousands of American military computers and gave him remote control of machines using simple passwords.

Apparently McKinnon then returned to the breached systems to implement shutdowns, retrieve data and delete files.

This included stealing 950 passwords, deleting 1,300 e-mails and lifting sensitive data on US Navy operations.

Under the Web name Solo, and using the programme Remotely Anywhere it's alleged that he gained "almost every administrative function" on many on the computers he targeted.

Speaking for the US Government, Janet Boston, said that McKinnon hacked into computers between February 2001 and March 2002.

"The cost of repairing the damage was $700,000 (£384,00). These are very serious matters and a substantial sentence may result."

If the former IT administrator is found guilty by a US court, he could face up to 70 years in jail and fined £1 million.

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