A Briton wanted in the US for what US authorities call the biggest successful hacking effort against American military computer networks was freed on bail Wednesday after a court appearance.
The court heard allegations that Gary McKinnon, 39, illegally accessed 97 US government computers between February 2001 and March 2002, causing US$700,000 in damages. US officials said two years ago that no classified material was obtained.
Lawyers for McKinnon, who was first arrested in the case nearly three years ago and then released, said he would fight extradition. It was not immediately clear why US officials took so long to seek extradition, but it is exceedingly rare to ask foreign governments to hand over defendants in computer-crime cases.
In previous major cyber crimes, such as the release of the "Love Bug" virus in May 2000 by a Filipino computer student and attacks in February 2000 by a Canadian youth against major American e-commerce Web sites, US authorities have waived interest in extraditing hacker suspects.
McKinnon's lawyer, Karen Todner, confirmed a published report that McKinnon was motivated by a desire to expose the ease with which a civilian could breach government computer systems and by a strong conviction that the US government was concealing evidence of UFOs.
Janet Boston, acting for the US government, told Bow Street Magistrates' Court that McKinnon installed unauthorized software on computers used by NASA, the Defense Department, the Army, Navy and Air Force that permitted him to "completely control the computers."
"In one instance, the US Army's military district of Washington network became inoperable," she said.
US prosecutors said McKinnon hacked into military computers nationwide running Microsoft Windows software that were left vulnerable to a design flaw for which Microsoft had issued repairs three years earlier.
After each break-in, McKinnon discovered computer accounts with passwords the same as each employee's username then installed popular remote-control software called "RemotelyAnywhere."
But McKinnon blundered badly by supplying his girlfriend's e-mail address when he downloaded his copy of RemotelyAnywhere from the software's manufacturer, leading authorities to him once they uncovered the break-ins.
McKinnon, who waved and blew a kiss toward his parents as he entered court, spoke only to confirm his name and date of birth.
Police arrested the former computer engineer, known online as "Solo," at his home in Wood Green, north London, Tuesday evening under an extradition warrant, the Metropolitan Police said.
When the case was first revealed in late 2002, US officials said McKinnon faced up to 10 years in prison plus fines of US$250,000 on each of eight counts.
District Judge Christopher Pratt set several conditions for the US$9,200 bail, including that McKinnon be barred from applying for any travel documents and from using any computer equipment that gives access to the Internet.
In arguing for low bail, defense lawyer Mohammed Khamisa emphasized McKinnon's lack of prior criminal convictions.
He also told the court that since McKinnon's initial arrest, he had made no attempt to leave the country or evade the attention of authorities since being released.