While US authorities are keen to extradite the British hacker, its military has publicly admitted to trying to hire recruits from recent hacking conferences
The US military has reportedly admitted to attending two major hacker shows in the United States in order to find recruits while at the same time threatening UK hacker Gary McKinnon with a lengthy jail term for breaking into government systems.
US news site NetworkWorld reported that the US Department of Defense’s director of futures exploration Jim Christy claimed that he attended the Defcon hacking show as far back as 1999 and “several thousand federal employees” attended the event this year. The show, which was held in Las Vegas from Thursday to Sunday last week describes itself as “one of the oldest continuous running hacker conventions around, and also one of the largest”.
US Air Force Colonel Michael Convertino also claimed to have attended Defcon in 2009 and 2008 when he reportedly found “about 60 good candidates for both enlisted and civilian positions”, according to NetworkWorld.
However while the term “hacking” is generally assumed to refer to illegally breaking into computer systems, to some elements of the technical community it simply refers to tinkering with IT systems and does not necessarily have illegal connotations. Instead, the term “cracker” is often used in the hacking community for illegal activity.
But despite the distinction made between hacker and cracker, the organisers of Defcon admit that the show does attract some individuals who may want to break into systems without permission – motivated by fun or profit. “Do criminals go to DEFCON? Yes. They also go to high school, college, work in your workplace, and the government. There are also lawyers, law enforcement agents, civil libertarians, cryptographers, and hackers in attendance. Ssshhh. Don’t tell anyone,” the site claims.
The news that the US military is prepared to interact and even hire from a show that admits to attracting illegal hackers could anger supporters of UK hacker Gary McKinnon who, rather than being courted by the US DOD as a potential recruit, is facing a jail term of up to 60 years if convicted of his crimes by US authorities.
Forty-three-year old McKinnon, who suffers from a form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome, hacked into 97 military and NASA systems, during the tense period after the 9/11 attacks, and allegedly caused damage that took £430,000 ($700,000) to repair. He maintains that the hacking was not malicious, and only a bid to find secret information about aliens and unidentified flying objects (UFOs).
But despite potential accusations of double standards when it comes to the hacking community, DOD’s Christy maintains that the Defcon show is now mostly frequented by law-abiding hackers. “The character of Defcon has changed over the years,” he told NetworkWorld “Ninety-five percent of the people here are good guys.”
Convertino, Christy and other representatives of the US military and law enforcement also spoke at the recent sister conference to Defcon – Black Hat – where they hosted a panel debate called Meet The Feds. In hacking parlance Black Hat refers to a hacker who specialises in breaking into computer systems without permission – as opposed to White Hats who often use similar tactics but with important distinction of having permission from the organisations themselves to help test network defences.
Both Black Hat and Defcon were set up by US hacker Jefff Moss who despite going by the moniker Dark Tangent – sits on the US Homeland Security Panel.
Reports have emerged this week that McKinnon may be able to serve his sentence in the UK if convicted of his crimes.