Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Taking Gary McKinnon for a Little Swim

I've thought a lot about Gary McKinnon recently. You know, he's the 40-something guy in the UK who, to say the least, is rather handy with a computer -- so handy, in fact, that he's to be extradited to the USA for allegedly doing extensive damage to government property here in the states. Said to be under the influence of cannabis as he successfully broke into the supposedly secure computer files of NASA and the U.S. military, McKinnon claims to have uncovered, amongst other things, government photos of real UFOs. I guess UFOs were his primary mission, his reason for conducting a home invasion of sorts in all of this. In the process, apparently a million dollars in damage was accomplished, or so says the U.S. government. Is that all? Good lord, didn't our own homegrown Wall Street terrorists spend years giving us an infinitely more costly economic enema with the help of sleeping congressional overseers and political parties? I digress. I badly need a cigarette right now, but I have none, and I don't smoke anyway. Learning to smoke would waste too much time and today's blog entry would never get finished. I fret too much.

I'm an Air Force veteran. You might suspect that I don't fancy the idea of people in other countries compromising our security, and that's correct, I don't. So, what to do with Mr. McKinnon, as a consequence of his actions? Maybe we could waterboard him -- after all, in his native land he enjoys "surfing" the Web, no? Clever attempt at humor there, didn't work out well.

As you read this, there are people all over the world attempting to access U.S. government computers for the sole purpose of causing mayhem tilted toward their own interests.. They're in North Korea, Russia, China, Iran -- you know, all the usual places and more than a few unusual ones. Obviously, U.S. computer hackers do the same spy work, and they deserve our thanks and appreciation for helping to keep us free, for snooping on and deterring forces consistent with pure evil. McKinnon comes to mind.

McKinnon? Gary McKinnon? I don't know. I've heard him speak and I've read his words and, frankly, every time I try to place him in the Pure Evil category I burst out laughing. Yep, he was a naughty one, but a few inescapable things must be noted before a potential government lynching or exposure to the cat-o'-nine tails proceeds.

First of all, the guy is obviously scared to death. He should be, no doubt. He also performed a valuable service to our government by breaking into the house, because his success demonstrated a vulnerability that needed repair by somebody other than whatever U.S. government boobs developed such an easily compromised security system. Who really put us at risk, anyway?

At best, I think, our government and corporate computer systems are protected by cheesecloth; at worst, as the children's storybooks warned, by the emperor's new clothes.

I was raised on typewriters, and well into my adult years when a computer was thrust into my life. I worked for the government at the time and had used trusty IBM Selectric typewriters for years when, suddenly, one of those digital beasts from hell was placed on my desk. The friendly Selectric was confiscated, never to be seen again. I was then given precious little training on the new technology and left to my own devices. I figured out enough on my own to use the computer, but felt increasingly uncomfortable with its intricacies.

"What's the problem?" another employee asked.

"I don't trust this infernal contraption," I replied. "Just look at this thing." "The keyboard is detached from the unit, and whatever you see on the screen isn't really there, it doesn't exist."

"Of course it's all there," she said. "You type characters, just like regular typing, and the results show up on the screen."

"But, " I protested, "let's say I type a page on the computer and then throw a rock through the screen -- everything's gone. Yet, if I use a typewriter, remove the paper, place it on the floor and drop a rock on it, the page remains basically intact. That's real, solid -- the computer just fakes it."

"That's nonsense," she advised. "You can print onto paper anything you type into the computer, and then you can drop your rock on that and it will still be there."

"Yes," I countered with pretend exasperation, "but each keystroke has to go somewhere else before the characters reach the printer. With the Selectric, you hit the key and the element prints a character right before your eyes. On the computer, the detached keyboard requires that you hit the key and then -- where does all of this go before reaching the screen and printer? What form does it take in mid-stream along the way? Where does it go whenever you send the electronic signals here or anywhere? The paper printed by the computer isn't my original document."

As I recall, the woman walked away, shaking her head. I guess I was impossible.

I'll bet Gary McKinnon knows where the electronic impulses go. I'll bet he knows where to put them, where to find them, how to manipulate them and how to make them his best friend. Stack his computer knowledge next to mine, and I look like a babbling infant. Still, I know enough to realize, especially during electronic lapses of national computer security, that our country is protected by Pac-Man impersonators.

In the Air Force, every time I left the base or returned there were military policemen on duty who determined whether or not I posed a threat, vigilant sentries who checked my credentials before allowing me access or exit. Of course, those were the sixties and early seventies, the days of old to some and the days of yore to many. And now we have the wonderful digital era.

Pac-Man's modern generation, more than the human sentries, protects us now. Random collections of digital images supposedly keep us safe. Pixels, mere pixels arranged by experts (a favorite word of mine) do the work, and we depend upon pixels for everything. Little ones and zeros keep us safe, entertained and hypnotized. Pixels are our friends and they're best buddies with the Gary McKinnons of the world, any time of the day or night.

So the U.S. government, my government, insists upon inviting Gary McKinnon to our shores. He didn't want to come and many of his own supporters and government personnel didn't want him to venture in this direction. Never mind, he's coming, and he's coming because the U.S. demanded his presence in order to get an in-your-face accounting of his activities. And the punishment will be dealt. We in the USA have a remarkable capacity for doing good things for the world, but we also relish the bureaucracy of punishment at home. Last I heard, proportionately we have more prisoners locked up than any other nation. Indeed, it might be argued that our prison system feeds on itself. I suspect there are lots of folks who shouldn't be in prison, while lots of people who should be locked up for life are not and never will be. But hey, did I mention Wall Street, Congress or the newly discovered thieving greedy?

In the meantime, our lives are protected by Pac-Man's odd assortment of digital friends. They fly planes, control weapons systems, direct battleships and nuclear facilities, position satellites and play music for us. Still, the music sounded sweeter when it originated from the needle gliding over the record grooves, when we knew we, and not Pac-Man's descendants, were the gods of the needle. We were in control, once upon a time.

Gary McKinnon was in control, too, but not in master control. Surely, he recognizes this now.

Hey, U.S. government, my government-- I have a few words for you: You wanted McKinnon, and you shall have him. I know he's in big trouble, but I'm not sure that he's a "terrorist" or really worth exposure to prison time. Whatever damage he caused, he also whipped our butts and redefined the word, "security" for us, and for that kindness maybe he deserves a debt of gratitude. I also suspect there's just a teeny-tiny bit of sadistic avenging going on here as well, because McKinnon represents, soon by his presence, all the really, really dangerous hackers we can't reach in rogue nations. If you can't hook a whale, the minnow will do. And -- oh, there is one more little thing before I close today.

Ever since I first read about UFOs in the late fifties, and particularly in the early sixties, all I've heard from my government and various military spokesmen is that UFOs represent no threat to our national security. Yet, Mr. McKinnon, this allegedly evil computer monster and potential blood-sucking terror suspect claims to have seen photos of real UFOs in secret government computer files. Sensible public voices might ask, if UFOs are not a national security threat, why in the world would legitimate UFO photos be socked away in secure government files? Hmm. I realize that the U.S. possesses all sorts of weird-looking thingies that fly and go bump in the night that we don't and probably shouldn't know about, so maybe McKinnon actually misrepresented some of that, I don't know.

Chances are, he didn't see images of real UFOs. Then again. . .

My dear, dear government -- you insisted that McKinnon be brought to our soil. That being the case, it is my duty as an American to strongly suggest that the UFO issue play a prominent role in the case against the lad. Gary McKinnon's defense, and I can't imagine what shape that will take, should and must demand as the muck gets tossed around that the UFO issue be addressed. Did he see real UFOs? If so, those photos and all information about them must be released publicly, simply because UFOs represent no threat to our national security. Good grief, I know that phrase better than the alphabet by now.

I enthusiastically urge those defending McKinnon to raise the UFO issue and shout its relevance from the rooftops. Remember, my government went through a diplomatic hissy-fit to get his butt over here, so let the legal chips fall where they must and make triple certain that the 10-ton UFO elephant officially ignored on the living room sofa gets top billing. When all is said and done, legal proceedings might even let Mr. McKinnon return home, though it might make infinitely more sense to hire the guy and learn from him.

So, welcome soon to the United States, Mr. McKinnon, you of the computer geek world where lightning-fast capabilities just helped throw the world into lightning-faster financial chaos -- you of a world both protected and violated by the pixilated relatives of Pac-Man. Will you rock the world if, indeed, the UFO issue is allowed a proper airing? Or, as if by the sheer poetry of voodoo justice, will you simply be gobbled up like a Pac-Man victim?