Asperger's and Hacking: Is There a Connection?

Don Tennant

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.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
May 28, 2010 1:43 PM Jane Ashes Jane Ashes  says:

This article is very misleading - Gary McKinnon didn't even know he had Asperger's syndrome and he never used it as an excuse to gain unauthorised access into NASA and Pentagon computers (he didn't hack - there were no passwords - they were blank - and anyone could have done it)

McKinnon's lawyers however do reply on the experts' testimony that McKinnon's undiagnosed and unsupported Asperger's and severe depression exasperated obsessive behaviour, i.e. repeated access to sites that HAD no passwords - to look for information that morally, US has no right to hide from the people of this planet.

Gary did find evidence of extra-terrestrial fleet  (which didn't specify if they were human or alien in origin but the documents were titled 'extra-terrestrial fleet of officers') and a foto of cigar-shaped UFO taken from spacestation, with earth visible in background

what things like that are doing on government computers and why is it a secret to the rest of us?

why are we being treated like children and not told the truth?

Breaking the law is only when the purpose is malicious and involves personal gain which there was none in McKinnon's case - he's just a maverick who tried to uncover the truth to benefit humanity.

He didn't hurt anyone, he didn't steal anything.

Those other guys did, but Gary is not even a criminal in a true sense of the word. What he did is misdemeanor because he's left anti-US gov. messages and that's what they are trying to put him away for 60 years for.

Apparently, freedom of speech has no meaning any more

(and what Gary said was true, anyway - the US military were being the aggressor of the world - murdering millions of Iraqis was a nasty thing to do. US military should be ashamed of themselves

May 29, 2010 6:29 PM Joe Joe  says:

     Jane-  you are very confused.  The American military, in itself, followed orders and responded to situations (that you saw distorted, through a photographer's lens) in a professional manner.  I did three tours in Iraq.  There were some troops (just like people all over the world) that made foolish decisions, and that is inexcusable-- thankfully they have been punished.  Unfortunately, due to pressure from uninformed people such as yourself, other troops who followed protocol have been punished as scapegoats.

     Do you know what the first amendment is?  "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."  I interpret that to mean that you can speak your opinion without having Fedayeen rape and kill you and your family.  Did you know that about Saddam-era Iraq?  How does defacing U.S. government property fit into the first amendment?

     None of us "asked" to go.  We went because we were ordered to.  Until you've had a 14 year old with an automatic rifle pop out of a closet and fire at you while someone upstairs throws down a grenade-- don't tell me what you would do, or what we should do.  Learn your rights and get your facts together before posting nonsense.  Please.  If you have a problem, write your congressman. 

May 30, 2010 12:21 PM Inge Wie Inge Wie  says:


I think the fact is - not if Gary McKinnon is guilty or not - he is.

He did the things he is accused of - but prison sentences are not fair.

He did the things he did - but not for personal gain. He sought the truth.

The fact is that Gary will never survive 60 years in an American prison with Asperger's.

You can not say that he did those things because he had Asperger's, but Because of his Asperger's, he has the skill, motivation and naivety ...

He did not understand the consequences of his act - which is one of the characteristics of Asperger Syndrome ...

I think the American government should thank him for finding the loophole in their system, instead of punishing him.

Next, they should focus on catching the real badguys instead.

Jun 29, 2010 4:36 PM ZenEmu ZenEmu  says:

As someone with Aspergers Syndrome myself, I must say that I don't really see Gary McKinnon's diagnosis as relevent, to say that we don't understand consequences of our actions is wrong. Sure we have problems understanding social cue's and perhaps think a little too logically at times, but we also have an inate sense of justice and we are fully aware of right from wrong, and when we aren't like anyone else we need to learn.

Gary seems to have had some paranoid belifes, which isn't uncommon among people with Aspergers Syndrome, but most people I know are paranoid about one thing or another, but they don't go breaking the law to prove their beliefs.

What needs to happen here is a little common sense. He didn't do any harm and nobody was hurt, so his punishment should be fair and not excessive. As an Aspie he will be able to adapt, it won't be easy but it is possible.

Ultimately Aspergers cannot be used as an excuse to break the law.

Oct 10, 2018 7:29 AM JaneWoods JaneWoods  says:
Children and adults with Asperger’s syndrome experience a wide variety of symptoms, and no two cases are exactly the same. Some individuals will face minor issues that don’t interfere with their everyday lives, while others will struggle to function in academic, social, and workplace environments. Knowing the symptoms of Asperger’s can help parents, and patients themselves, get an accurate diagnosis. You can also refer to this article which states all the necessary details about aspergers https://www.everydayhealth.com/aspergers/what-are-signs-symptoms-disorder/ Reply

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