Infamous British computer hacker Gary McKinnon last week managed to stave off extradition to the United States to be tried on charges that he broke into U.S. military and other government computers in 2001 and 2002. Key to his defense: He is a victim of Asperger's Syndrome.
Individuals diagnosed with Asperger's, a relatively mild form of autism, generally have difficulty engaging in social interaction and often exhibit excessive, ultra-focused behavior. The disorder is so commonly found among people in computer-related fields that it's also known as "geek syndrome." But are these traits that might steer people toward computers responsible for steering some of them toward hacking?
Albert Gonzalez, the 2009 TJX credit card hacker, piggybacked on McKinnon's contention that they do. But another infamous hacker with Asperger's says that's a crock.
According to a report last week in Wired, Adrian Lamo, who gained notoriety after pleading guilty to hacking into New York Times databases in 2004, was finally diagnosed with Asperger's just this month. Lamo is scornful of the suggestion that his wrongdoing could be blamed on his diagnosis:
For his part, Lamo thinks Asperger's might explain his knack for slipping into corporate networks - he usually operated with little more than a web browser and a lot of hunch work. "I have always maintained that what I did isn't necessarily technical, it's about seeing things differently," he says. "So if my brain is wired differently, that makes sense." But he scoffs at the notion that Asperger's should mitigate the consequences of illegal behavior. Asperger's might help explain his success in hacking, but not his willingness to do it, he says. "If, in fact, the diagnosis is accurate, it had zip to do with my actions at that time."
It's not surprising that people who have been diagnosed with Asperger's might be outraged by the idea of using the disorder to defend illegal activity. An individual who identified himself has having Asperger's posted this on AspieWeb.net in 2008:
Gary McKinnon-you make me very ill to the stomach. You're using Asperger's as a scapegoat for your actions that are very illegal in order to get away with what you did. As someone who has Asperger's, [I find] your actions very offensive. Do you realize your stupid last chance legal defense is painting a picture that could very well slow down the rights for Autistic people? You're claiming you don't know what's right and wrong because of Autism-the exact picture our opponents want to paint.
No matter how you look at it, the Asperger's defense for hackers is a statement that people with Asperger's can't be trusted to know right from wrong. Making such a claim is a far worse offense than the hacking of a computer will ever be.