A US government adviser on cyber warfare has criticised the efforts to extradite the computer hacker Gary McKinnon from Britain, saying such people should be embraced rather than prosecuted.
John Arquilla, a professor of defence analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, said the US authorities were squandering a potentially invaluable human resource and that his extradition would not deter other hackers.
"Personally I think it's ridiculous. And punitive. They're attempting to create a deterrent effect that will not deter and is slowing our progress," he said in an interview with the Guardian.
McKinnon, of Wood Green, north London, claims he was looking for evidence of UFOs when he hacked into 97 Nasa and Pentagon computers from his flat in 2002. His case has become lightning rod in Britain for campaigners against the UK-US extradition treaty, which they say is one-sided.
McKinnon, who has Asperger's syndrome, was arrested in June 2005, and an order for extradition was made in July 2006. The case has dragged though the courts since then.
Arquilla said the US government should think about hiring rather than prosecuting hackers like McKinnon. "There are other places in the world where these communities are embraced by official authority, and these are places that are becoming great cyber powers. The analogy is as if after world war two the Russians were using these rocket scientists while we put the ones we got on trial and incarcerated them."
He said there were some people in the US government who shared his view that hackers should be hired, not prosecuted. "There are good people in many different departments of the US government that are open to this idea, but they are a tiny minority."
Arquilla said that because of hackers' backgrounds in illicit activities, it is hard to get them security clearance. "How can we have a master hacker in our system if we can't get clearance? We have to create a new kind of institutional culture that allows us to reach out to these diverse kind of actors."
Not all at the Naval Postgraduate School were as keen on master hackers. Dorothy Denning, an information security expert at the college's department of defence analysis, expressed compassion for McKinnon but balked at the idea of recruiting him. "It's a sad case. He obviously has some personal problems. I wouldn't want to hire him. But maybe he is someone who doesn't belong in prison either."
She acknowledged the skill of certain hackers but ruled out hiring them if they were committing illegal acts. "It's one thing snooping into other people's computers when you're 13, 16, 18, but if you're still doing that when you are 30 or 40, that's something else."