The US Government should consider pardoning Gary McKinnon as part of a campaign to woo people with similar much-needed cyber-skills, influential defence analyst John Arquilla has argued in an article that will make tough reading for the men and women who spent a decade trying to extradite the Briton.
Arquilla’s article in Foreign Policy is unconcerned about the rights and wrongs of hacking so much as the inability of US policy and lawmakers to distinguish between malevolence and useful curiosity of the sort that could be put to national use.
The skills of the world’s McKinnons are a resource that should be tapped but is not being tapped.
“Oddly, the people who can best lead our explorations of virtual ‘inner space’ have received less than heroes' welcomes in the United States.,” writes Arquilla
“Hackers may be courted and pampered in China, Russia, and other countries, but in the United States they are often hunted by lawmen.”
Indeed, many hackers found themselves viewed suspiciously, something that was at odds with the stated intention of the US military to expand US Cyber Command by recruiting such people.
“In a very real sense, today's masters of cyberspace are not unlike the German rocket scientists who, after World War II, were so eagerly sought by both sides in the Cold War to help them build missiles for war and rockets for space exploration.”
As for Gary McKinnon, Arquilla more or less agrees with the many commentators who argued that the Scot was a useful early warning of the incredible vulnerability of the country’s most critical military systems at a vital moment.
“But if the notion of trying to attract master hackers to our cause is ever to take hold, this might be just the right case in which President Obama should consider using his power to pardon [McKinnon],” argues Arquilla.
“One presidential act of mercy, such as in the case of McKinnon, won't entirely repair relations or build trust between hackers and the government, but it would be a strong signal of officialdom's growing awareness of the wisdom of embracing and employing the skills of these masters of their virtual domain.”
The Gary McKinnon affair started as a necessary pursuit of a man who had hacked dozens of US military and NASA servers in late 2001, supposedly in search of evidence on UFOs.
He found nothing but it was a bad moment to carry out any anti-US probe. Last October UK Home Secretary Theresa May finally turned down the US request he be extradited to face trial for those attacks.
In a decade hackers have gone from being a menace to US national security to eccentric, misguided fools, but perhaps Arquilla’s point is that they are neither of those.
“What they have in common - aside from a kind of startling intelligence - is a deep attraction to the beauty and complexity of cyberspace.”