Faraway, So Close

I don't sleep well at night. I have regular insomnia. Not a particularly shocking statement, I suppose, considering it's partly hereditary. Anyone that claims any sort of closeness to me will know that I worry a lot too. It's all stuff I perceive to be mountains to climb that causes me a restless night as well, which makes the whole thing a bit more pathetic. Global warming, tsunamis, Third World debt and Palestinian children are all concerns that get me into a vicious circle of never-ending sleepless worry. But four nights ago was different. As I struggled with the latest insomniac worry of Gary McKinnon's potential extradition to the U.S., I actually wept. I can't remember when I last shed a tear on my pillow - we're talking early teens and we're probably talking about early thoughts of a schoolbully's latest victim. The emotional reason comes from that red-hot cheeked feeling harking back to being a helpless childish bystander seeing a vulnerable classmate being completely subjugated. The logical reason is that, unlike any of the other seemingly world-wide massive mountain problems to climb, this one should be a molehill and should be something we can fix. If we can't help Gary out, if we can't help one man out, then we can't do very much else.

I'm affected badly by this for other reasons. One of those is the personal one of having two people in my life who have Aspergers Syndrome, just like Gary. My first degree is in Psychology and I did a great deal of research into the list of prototypical Asperger symptoms. One of the slight misunderstandings associated with the condition is its relation to autism. Some would describe Aspergers Syndrome as a 'diluted' form of autism. This may be true in some respects, but it'd be wrong to completely characterise it as simply just this. In some ways, people who suffer Aspergers Syndrome are actually more vulnerable. For a start, some more extreme autistics live in their heads, figuratively speaking, and the outside world doesn't really impinge on them very much. Meanwhile, Aspergers Syndrome people are fully self-aware that they're deficient in recognising social and emotional cues in their environment (the obvious one being facial expressions on peoples' faces). They're aware that they relate differently to other people with a lack of emotional awareness, and that consequently makes them feel more isolated. It's one of the reasons they're vulnerable to depression and, in some cases, suicide. And it utterly kicks me in the kidneys and it makes me unable to see the screen because of the mist when I write that last word, as both people I know with Aspergers have variously suffered bouts of depression (and with one, three actual nervous breakdowns). So, it's a very real issue for Gary if he is sent to a prison in the U.S.

Another reason is my current career as a web developer, which also involves a lot of stuff with search engines. It's very easy to kickstart a process within a search engine that opens all doors that are not locked, but only closed on the latch, so to speak. Sometimes, you'll open doors that people that have forgotten to lock and you'll catch a glimpse of something that you shouldn't really see. Most of the time, I gulp a bit, reverse the process and stare red-faced at my keyboard. I then repress, banish the thought and carry on with my work. It's just what you do, particularly as people assume there's an elegant world-wide web out there (although I should point out, for sake of clarity, that I haven't hacked any military base machines - I'm talking about ordinary peoples' personal machines that should be locked properly!). What I can actually see is an internet structure still packed with holes, bizarre little caches, broken links, half-protected web servers and forgotten backroom dusty backend machines. Using something as simple as a Perl script that ties together a few other applications, which detects "blank passwords" on machines isn't really even hacking. Boris Johnson argues this point strongly in his Daily Telegraph article defending Gary.

Aspergers Syndrome doesn't permit you to the luxury of social niceties and it arms you with a naive and honest bluntness. Gary saw the real-world equivalent of several unlocked doors with some very important US military types caught sleeping over a half-finished game of poker and left a note saying "Your security sucks" (I'm paraphrasing), with an accompanying email address. It's what I've played with doing, when accidentally finding some insecure web resource somewhere, but I realise that the messenger often gets shot, even when he's doing the decent thing. The point being that when you're dealing with doing any work on the web at even a day-to-day level, it is sometimes unavoidable to trip up over someone else's unlocked private safe. It's an occupational hazard, I believe the phrase to be. So, Ms Jacqui SmithMr Alan Johnson, you might as well round all of us web developers up and hand us to the appropriate authorities. I'm sure if the rest of us were afflicted with the naive honesty granted by Aspergers Syndrome, we'd end up in the same situation.

For more information on Gary McKinnon's case and to sign a petition, please visit Free Gary McKinnon.