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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Did Asperger’s Make Him Do It?

Gary McKinnon, accused of hacking into U.S. military computers and facing extradition to the U.S. to stand trial, leaves a High Court hearing in 2009. (AP)

Gary McKinnon, accused of hacking into U.S. military computers, leaves a High Court hearing in 2009 in the U.K. (AP)

The U.S. government alleges that between February 2001 and March 2002, Scottish citizen Gary McKinnon went on a hacking spree of hundreds of U.S. military computers.

In what one U.S. attorney called “the biggest military computer hack of all time” McKinnon surfed around for months copying files and passwords, at one point taking down the Army’s entire Washington, D.C. computer network for three days.

“This is definitely entering the legal conversation and we’re seeing more cases that are raising what you might call the Asperger’s defense.”

– David Kushner, of IEEE Spectrum magazine

The government claims McKinnon threatened national security, caused hundreds of thousand dollars of damage to it’s high tech networks, and should be extradited to the U.S and if convicted, imprisoned.

But McKinnon also has Asperger’s Syndrome,  and that’s raising questions about how he should be prosecuted.

Asperger’s is a high-functioning form of Autism. A person with the condition often has difficulty in social situations and intense interests in certain things.

Some researchers think there may be an emerging connection between Asperger’s and people with an affinity for understanding complex systems — people like engineers or, say, computer programmers.

McKinnon has become a cause celeb in Britain, where he was arrested, and a martyr figure among members of the Asperger’s community.

McKinnon’s lawyers say that his Asperger’s influenced his actions and that he shouldn’t be charged as a terrorist in the U.S.

David Kushner, wrote in IEEE Spectrum Magazine that the idea of the “Geek Defense” is on the rise.

“This is definitely entering the legal conversation in a big way and we’re seeing more cases that are raising what you might call the Asperger’s defense,” he told Here & Now‘s Sacha Pfeiffer.

Guest:

  • David Kushner, reporter for IEEE Spectrum Magazine

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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