The 5 biggest hacks of all time
NASA and the Department of Defense hack
In the movies and on TV, when a young hackling manages to get into military or government computer systems, they are normally offered a job working for the FBI. The reality is quite different.
At the turn of the millennium, NASA and the US Department of Defense (DoD) were successfully compromised by two hackers, 15-year-old Floridian Jonathan James and 35-year-old Scot Gary McKinnon.
James was the first to have a crack at the American space agency in 1999, which he crawled into by compromising computers at the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
Among other things, he managed to make off with the source code for the life support systems on the International Space Station (ISS). The Register reported it cost NASA alone $41,000 to repair the damage he had done.
Gary McKinnon has the dubious honour of being accused by US prosecutors of perpetrating “the biggest military computer hack of all time”.
According to American authorities, between February 2001 and March 2002 he hacked into 97 computers, 16 belonging to NASA and 81 belonging to other parts of the DoD.
During his actions, which he claims were carried out in search of evidence of UFOs and the suppression of new energy technologies, McKinnon managed to paralyse munitions supplies to the US Naval Fleet in the Atlantic in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 by deleting weapons logs. He is also alleged to have stolen 950 passwords and dozens of documents in the course of his actions.
The cost of repairing the damage alleged to have been caused by McKinnon was in excess of £550,000, the US government claimed.
As the hacks were carried out against the military, it’s not been made public how exactly James and McKinnon gained access to the systems they did, but we do know what happened to the men in question.
McKinnon fought against extradition to the US for a decade, with Home Secretary Theresa May eventually blocking the motion in October 2012, stating that handing him over to the US raised “such a high risk of him ending his own life” that it would breach his human rights. The director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, announced that December that no prosecution would be brought in the UK, as all the evidence was in the US.
James, on the other hand, was convicted in September 2000 of hacking the DoD and NASA. However, as he was a minor when he carried out the crimes, he was sentenced to six-months house arrest, probation until the age of 18, and had to write letters of apology to NASA and the DoD.