Gary McKinnon, a British computer analyst, has failed in his appeal against extradition to the US. McKinnon is accused of accessing 97 US military and NASA computers during his search for information about a possible US government conspiracy to cover up the existence of UFOs. According to the Glasgow-born 42 year old, the computers he accessed were totally unprotected and surprisingly easy to hack. However, the US government says his actions were malicious and the biggest breach of US government computers of all time. McKinnon’s activities allowed him access to 16 NASA computers between 2001 and 2002.
For the record, it is my opinion that McKinon is the victim of his own curiosity. He most certainly is not an organized terrorist wanting to bring down the US government. What’s more the UK has tough laws that he can be prosecuted by, so why is he being extradited to a country where he has never set foot before? Having followed this unfolding story for some years, I feel compelled to mention it on Astroengine.com. This man should not be extradited. The apparent ease at which this individual walked into NASA networks is astonishing; it’s not McKinon that needs to be taken to court, it’s NASA’s Internet security experts who need to be taken to task…
What is going on with NASA’s computer security? On Tuesday, news is released that the International Space Station is infected with a virus; it was admitted that the ISS was completely unprotected from the attack by the W32.Gammima.AG worm. To make matters worse, NASA proudly pointed out that this wasn’t the first time the space station had been infected (as if to deflect the headline: “First Computer Virus Infects ISS”). If this wasn’t the first time, why the hell isn’t the station protected now?
Although the worm in question is considered “low risk” and the ISS is not connected to the Internet (thereby avoiding many terrestrial online threats), the ISS crew do have a basic form of email access to communicate with home and astronauts are allowed (apparently) to use personal flash drives on non-critical systems. NASA indicated that the Gammima worm, a data harvesting virus which collects personal data from certain online games, was transported onto the station by one such infected flash card.
OK, so we have to come to terms with the fact that a) personnel may be able to use infected hardware in space, b) occasionally accidents (infections) do happen and, c) NASA is a target for malicious hackers. But there are some unacceptable circumstances to this recent turn of events. NASA clearly indicates the space station has been infected before, so why hasn’t sufficient steps been taken to install anti-virus software? NASA is clearly a target for terrorist activities, why weren’t sufficient firewalls installed to prevent hackers (curious and malicious) from gaining “easy” access?
Coming back to Gary McKinon’s case, the reasons why his actions are being pursued by the US is beyond me. Add to this the life sentence the UFO hunter could be facing on foreign soil, to say the US is overreacting is an understatement. Like many modern organizations there is a culture of blame, and McKinon is being used as an example to show that any infringement into US military and NASA computers will be punished with everything they can throw at it. If that means prison for McKinon, so be it. Talk about protecting your computers retroactively (i.e. reacting after the damage is done). There is actually another worrying part of this case, US attorneys are blaming the 42 year old for deleting sensitive files after the September 11th 2001 attacks in New York. Does this mean he can be tried under anti-terrorism legislation? I hope not. McKinon did not carry out malicious attacks, we know this, the thing that bothers the plaintiffs is that they were caught with their trousers down.
But has NASA and the other ISS partners learnt their lesson? Unfortunately not, as cosmonaut Sergey Volkov will agree as he continues to work on getting Norton AntiVirus (!!) installed on the station…
NOTE: As I’ve found with writing any article detailing the negatives behind NASA, I will often get a disproportionate number of angry messages citing my views as being anti-NASA. This is not the case; on the contrary in fact, I write these articles because more attention needs to be paid to keep the agency on-track. I am a huge NASA advocate with a massive belief that the US space agency will achieve bigger feats of exploration than even the pioneering Apollo program. I love space exploration and NASA is the main player in our push to understand the cosmos.