McKinnon the scapegoat

Gary McKinnon’s fate is now bound up in cyberwar and matters of espionage as governments try and fai

After all the coalition posturing for the cause of Gary McKinnon, it looks like the government will not stop the autistic hacker's extradition after all.

The Prime Minister was applauded for discussing McKinnon with President Barack Obama in Washington on 20 July and later suggesting that the US might allow the hacker to serve any prison sentence in the UK. But this was a hollow victory. McKinnon's campaign was always about his extradition to the US, not whether he might serve time there, as David Cameron and other coalition MPs well knew when they made political capital from it before the election that brought them to power. The last government promised repatriation. Cameron has done nothing more.

The apparent injustice of this is greater than mere hypocrisy. To understand why, we must return to November 2000, barely three months before McKinnon was detected hacking US computers, when FBI agents performed an audacious hack of their own -- to collect evidence from computers in Russia.

The FBI hack has haunted US attempts to legitimise the cross-border collection of electronic evidence (known as trans-border access) ever since. Its illegitimacy was established in 2004 by the Budapest Convention on Cyber Crime, a US-backed cyberlaw treaty.

This was no surprise. The US helped design the treaty. The first draft was published six months before the FBI hack; the US signed it a year later, within weeks of convicting Vasili Gorchkov, one of the Russian extortionists.

In 2002, three months after a US court indicted McKinnon for hacking into US computers, the FBI hackers were decorated. Moscow reportedly responded by filing charges against the FBI agents in retaliation for their infringement of Russia's national sovereignty.

The evolving legal context was not overlooked in McKinnon's case. By the time the US requested his extradition in October 2004, the US/UK Extradition Act 2003 had entered into force. It allowed the US to order his extradition on less evidence than would normally be required to put someone before a British court. It promptly did so, citing evidence that, the high court heard last year, was insufficient to support its allegations.

Rough justice

Both cases illuminate the reasons why the progress of international cyberlaw, though slow in comparison with growing computer crime, has been plagued by concerns that it encroaches on established ideas of sovereignty, jurisdiction and human rights.

The problem is one of balance. On one side, a desire for justice to operate effectively in the computer age, when networks permeate our borders and so much of life transcends sovereign boundaries. On the other side, a desire for sovereign responsibilities and human rights not to be bowled aside in the rush for justice to operate at this height and at digital speeds.

These concerns were significant enough to trigger treaty reviews at both the United Nations and the Council of Europe, after 80 per cent of votes supported Russia's opposition to trans-border access at a UN meeting in April.

Hence also the proposed review of UK extradition law, under which prosecutors have justified the extradition of numerous people on flimsy evidence.

It all helps show how McKinnon's extradition rests on weak moral ground. Yet still the law leaves the government little choice but to let it proceed. A UK trial is permissible, if the US would agree to it. But even if the US evidence was good enough to stand up in a British court, neither government wants to stop the extradition.

Cyberwar

This is because the inherent insecurity of computer networks has now become a matter of national security. Computer breaches are a serious crime, Obama told Cameron, because they would increasingly leak valuable information. Within a week of that conversation, WikiLeaks had exposed 92,201 classified computer files with damning details of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.

Nine and a half years after McKinnon was caught hacking, the threat of cyberwar and espionage makes his crime seem far graver than it ever was. The military can't secure its networks. It can't even tell the difference between organised hoodlums, foreign military agents and hobby hackers. As a result, all states can do is use punishment as a deterrent.

McKinnon will be strung up, metaphorically speaking, to demonstrate just how serious the US and UK are about protecting their networks. Computer systems won't be any more secure. Serious criminals and foreign states won't be deterred. But a semblance of justice will have been seen to be done.

As for actual justice, McKinnon's lawyers still have some appeals up their sleeves. The hacker's Asperger's syndrome may lead yet to his extradition being halted. That will be good enough for Cameron, so long as he can continue to give the impression he's working for McKinnon's cause.

Mark Ballard is a freelance journalist who writes about computer policy, crime, security, law and systems.

Read the full archive of the New Statesman's coverage of Gary McKinnon's case, in particular Sophie Elmhirst's exclusive interview.

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Jeremy Corbyn sat down on train he claimed was full, Virgin says

The train company has pushed back against a viral video starring the Labour leader, in which he sat on the floor.

Seats were available on the train where Jeremy Corbyn was filmed sitting on the floor, Virgin Trains has said.

On 16 August, a freelance film-maker who has been following the Labour leader released a video which showed Corbyn talking about the problems of overcrowded trains.

“This is a problem that many passengers face every day, commuters and long-distance travellers. Today this train is completely ram-packed,” he said. Is it fair that I should upgrade my ticket whilst others who might not be able to afford such a luxury should have to sit on the floor? It’s their money I would be spending after all.”

Commentators quickly pointed out that he would not have been able to claim for a first-class upgrade, as expenses rules only permit standard-class travel. Also, campaign expenses cannot be claimed back from the taxpayer. 

Today, Virgin Trains released footage of the Labour leader walking past empty unreserved seats to film his video, which took half an hour, before walking back to take another unreserved seat.

"CCTV footage taken from the train on August 11 shows Mr Corbyn and his team walked past empty, unreserved seats in coach H before walking through the rest of the train to the far end, where his team sat on the floor and started filming.

"The same footage then shows Mr Corbyn returning to coach H and taking a seat there, with the help of the onboard crew, around 45 minutes into the journey and over two hours before the train reached Newcastle.

"Mr Corbyn’s team carried out their filming around 30 minutes into the journey. There were also additional empty seats on the train (the 11am departure from King’s Cross) which appear from CCTV to have been reserved but not taken, so they were also available for other passengers to sit on."

A Virgin spokesperson commented: “We have to take issue with the idea that Mr Corbyn wasn’t able to be seated on the service, as this clearly wasn’t the case.

A spokesman for the Corbyn campaign told BuzzFeed News that the footage was a “lie”, and that Corbyn had given up his seat for a woman to take his place, and that “other people” had also sat in the aisles.

Owen Smith, Corbyn's leadership rival, tried a joke:

But a passenger on the train supported Corbyn's version of events.

Both Virgin Trains and the Corbyn campaign have been contacted for further comment.

UPDATE 17:07

A spokesperson for the Jeremy for Labour campaign commented:

“When Jeremy boarded the train he was unable to find unreserved seats, so he sat with other passengers in the corridor who were also unable to find a seat. 

"Later in the journey, seats became available after a family were upgraded to first class, and Jeremy and the team he was travelling with were offered the seats by a very helpful member of staff.

"Passengers across Britain will have been in similar situations on overcrowded, expensive trains. That is why our policy to bring the trains back into public ownership, as part of a plan to rebuild and transform Britain, is so popular with passengers and rail workers.”

A few testimonies from passengers who had their photos taken with Corbyn on the floor can be found here