Pre-computer laws blamed for UFO hacker's plight

The extradition laws under which hacker Gary McKinnon has been ordered before a US court were made before politicians had thought how they would apply to computer crime, said David Blunkett, the home secretary who put the US/UK Extradition Treaty through Parliament.

Had he considered how the Internet might help people span borders so easily, the law might have been drafted differently, the former home secretary told the Home Affairs Select Committee today.

Committee chairman Keith Vaz presided over a meeting that also heard how video-conferencing and other high-tech gadgetry could provide a humane way for courts to process people suspected of cross-border computer crimes: by conducting trials over the wires, people accused of minor crimes could avoid the immense upheaval of being shipped abroad to face potentially years of court action when they might yet be proved innocent.

Mistake
"It was a mistake," said Blunkett of the time when he passed the extradition law, "not to [have] more readily explored the world of cyber criminal activity which goes beyond the normal geographical boundaries."

When he and other politicians drafted the extradition law, they would have benefited from the hindsight they have now, he said.

"Were we looking at a case like Gary McKinnon's seven years ago, and someone had put to me that in the cyber age it is possible for someone to commit a crime from one jurisdiction into another with substantial effect... we would have reflected on that," said Blunkett.

Mother's testimony
Janis Sharpe, McKinnon's mother, later reminded the same Committee how Blunkett had put the 2003 Extradition Treaty through Parliament under the Royal Prerogative, which allowed it to pass with less than the usual degree of Parliamentary scrutiny.

McKinnon was arrested in 2002, before Blunkett signed the law. He was arrested for nosing around in US computers over a modem link in North London. He said he was looking for evidence of UFOs.

Blunkett signed the law after the introduction of the Budapest Convention on Cyber Crime, which, when it was introduced in 2001, was the first and only instrument of cross-border cyber law. This legislation was championed by the US and the UK government of which Blunkett was a part.

Sharpe described with poignant emotion how McKinnon's mental health has been battered over the near-decade since he committed his crimes. She laid a Gauntlet down to the coalition government, whose leaders spoke of McKinnon's plight when they were campaigning for votes.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told Sharpe he had spoken to "top lawyers" on her son's behalf. "He said Gary could absolutely be kept here," said Sharpe.

"David Cameron said they would keep him here. I'm sure these people wouldn't use a vulnerable man just to be re-elected because that would be horrendous. I'm sure they will keep their word and I'm sure they will have the strength to say to America, 'no'," she said.

Human rights
Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights campaign group Liberty, said the extradition law under which the US had ordered McKinnon before its courts should should be improved.

Foreign courts should be forced to show more evidence before British citizens are handed over to them, she said.

"Give the courts the discretion to refuse to extradite in cases such as Gary McKinnon's where justice will be better served by dealing with him here at home," she said.

The European Arrest Warrant was similarly putting British citizens under the shadow of foreign criminal charges that had not been vetted by British Courts, the Committee heard.

It also heard how politicians such as the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown had been right to intervene in McKinnon's case because they were testing the fault lines of the new law.

Theresa May, the coalition government's home secretary, is reviewing McKinnon's case in the light of new medical evidence.