Surreal Interview of the Month

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In The Guardian, Jon Ronson chats with the British hacker Gary McKinnon, who's facing extradition to the U.S. and up to 70 years in prison for his exploits within NASA's and the Pentagon's computers:

"What was the most exciting thing you saw?" I ask.

"I found a list of officers' names," he claims, "under the heading 'Non-Terrestrial Officers'."

"Non-Terrestrial Officers?" I say.

"Yeah, I looked it up," says Gary, "and it's nowhere. It doesn't mean little green men. What I think it means is not earth-based. I found a list of 'fleet-to-fleet transfers', and a list of ship names. I looked them up. They weren't US navy ships. What I saw made me believe they have some kind of spaceship, off-planet."

"The Americans have a secret spaceship?" I ask.

"That's what this trickle of evidence has led me to believe."

"Some kind of other Mir that nobody knows about?"

"I guess so," says Gary.

"What were the ship names?"

"I can't remember," says Gary. "I was smoking a lot of dope at the time. Not good for the intellect."

McKinnon's indictment is here. The Free Gary website is here. McKinnon warns kids to stay on the straight and narrow here.

NEXT: Sympathy for the Doctor

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  1. Well, the idea is not totally off the wall. Though keeping a ship in low-earth orbit without it being spotted by even amateur astronomers might be hard.

  2. Hak that’s what the secret cloaking device is for.

  3. Basically, what Gary was looking for – and found time and again – were network administrators within high levels of the US government and military establishments who hadn’t bothered to give themselves passwords. That’s how he got in.

    The government is so pathetic.

  4. I should think it would be hard to launch an unscheduled rocket from Cape Canaveral… unless THAT is what Area 51 is for.

  5. If I were running a super-secret government operation, I think the first thing I would do to ensure the operation remained secret forevermore would be to tell some whacked out nut-case all about it.

  6. People like him are the reason our secret lab has no internet connection. I post to Hit and Run from a not-so-secret Starbucks.

  7. It occurs to me that a lot of prominent figures (politicians, especially) could benefit from using the “I was stoned when I said that” defense. At the very least it would do away with the fake “Trent Lott apology”, where the figure in question thoroughly abases themself, but everyone knows they haven’t really changed their opinion (the process being less an apology than a ritual of public humiliation and redemption.)

  8. I don’t know if I believe this, but I have no doubt that the government’s doing a LOT of crazy shit that would sound insane if anybody ever heard about it. Suppose I told you that a high-ranking military officer assigned to the White House is secretly selling weapons to some of our worst enemies, with the President’s approval? Sounds paranoid, but that’s pretty much what Iran-Contra was all about.

  9. It seems more likely that these were secret battle ships or even subs that aren’t officially listed. These officers are called non-terrestrial because they’re not listed as part of an official base or ship, instead they’re on the high seas in an undisclosed location.

    There is no way we have any sort of spaceship or station that hasn’t been found by thousands of people.

  10. Hakluyt, guess they haven’t learned anything since Kevin Mitnick’s days in the sun, eh?

  11. Could all these non-terrestrial officers perhaps be based just under the surface of Uranus?
    Better yours than mine.

  12. Basically, what Gary was looking for – and found time and again – were network administrators within high levels of the US government and military establishments who hadn’t bothered to give themselves passwords. That’s how he got in.

    Imagine if this standard applied in the non-cyber world. Imagine if stores didn’t lock their doors. Imagine a store with a big sign saying “Lot’s of cool stuff in here” with the door unlocked, but throwing people in jail just for wandering inside, not even causing any damage. It strains common sense.

  13. Soluditarian,

    Well, the government has other launching facilities. They could have also used a Ariane rocket from French Guiana. But it is unlikely that such a ship exists.

    Jim Anderson,

    Well, Ames and Hannsen were left to compromise the U.S. intelligence structure for a long time despite there being copious red flags about them, so its clear that the CIA and the FBI will never learn the lesson.

  14. Seventy years does seem like an excessive sentence, BTW.

  15. “I can’t remember,” says Gary. “I was smoking a lot of dope at the time. Not good for the intellect.

    And that’s when Gary lost libertarian support.

  16. Seventy years does seem like an excessive sentence, BTW.

    Yes, and although it seems obvious it’s worth pointing out how much longer than most murders and rapes that is.

    I also want to know how people get promoted that high and not know how to operate a computer. If somebody didn’t know how to operate a car, or a washing machine, they’d never get that far. And yet it’s considered acceptable to not know how to operate a computer.

  17. dead_elvis: It is still trespass, by common law, even if I have no lock on my door. Fences are used to keep out things that don’t understand the social order, like stray cattle. People are expected to know better. Locks might be smart, but the responsibility remains with the person who entered uninvited.

    …Although there are city ordinances that make it illegal for owners to leave keys in their cars. Such is a case where one can be criminally stupid…

  18. elvis – good point on the length of sentence. I love it when they put drug dealers and hackers into prison for longer than rapists and murderers. Totally have their priorities straight. *rolls eyes*

    elvis – also good point on their reasoning. The guy did nothing with the data. Ok, trespassing (or the cyber version thereof) might be warranted, but he didn’t steal anything, didn’t break anything, etc.

    Basically, they’re just pissed that he got one over on them for so long.

  19. I should think it would be hard to launch an unscheduled rocket from Cape Canaveral… unless THAT is what Area 51 is for.

    Well, the government has other launching facilities. They could have also used a Ariane rocket from French Guiana. But it is unlikely that such a ship exists

    Both are highly unlikely. Area 51 is smack in the middle of a major land mass (North America) and anything launched from there would necessarily be visible to millions of people. Plus it’s been shut down for years now.

    Also, an Ariane rocket (depending on the model) really isn’t large enough to carry a human crew and a ship large enough to support them. Maybe, just maybe, an Ariane 5 could do a small capsule good for a couple of days, but the 5 has only been flown a couple of times anyway and is barely operational. Plus it’s not “man-rated.”

    There are many, many amateur astronomers who track unknown, unacknowledged satellites (there are many of those, too) and know their orbits to high precision. This includes some of the most secret reconnaisance satellites.

  20. Lowdog: Well, he may have erased some files. So the “didn’t break anything” stricture doesn’t necessarily fit.

    But I agree — a 70-year sentence would be insane.

  21. We keep all sorts of secrets here. For instance, I’d be in big trouble if I told you that in the building next door there’s an alien physiology research facility. Or that I know a guy designing a successor to the Cordilla virus, to be released a month before the 2006 midterm elections.

    But those secrets are well-kept. And if you think the secret just got out, you might want to open your office door and greet the Man in Black coming to whisk you away. He’ll do it painlessly if you give him a cookie.

  22. In the absence of credible evidence, said secret gov’t project does not exist.

  23. Could all these non-terrestrial officers perhaps be based just under the surface of Uranus?

    Those would be the Klingons.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    On a slightly more on-topic note, there is no way a rocket large enough to boost a payload into space could be launched from Cape Canaveral without the whole world knowing. I grew up close to there (we could see the VAB from my back yard), and I can tell you that even a launch of a small satellite causes noticeable ground vibrations for several miles around. We would be sitting at the dinner table, and suddenly feel the ground rumbling, and we would get up and go outside to see the rocket going up. There’s no way you could launch anything bigger than an Estes from the cape without everyone within a 10 mile radius knowing it.

  24. Save the 70 year sentences to the sociopathic teenager who builds a virus or trojan or some insidious piece of spyware. Let his only link to the outside world be a heavily infected laptop running 98 SE. Let a live 24 hour feed of his incarceration be made available on the internet, including a keystroke log of his computer use. Make his sole email address public knowledge.

    Somebody recently made the arguement that more social and material value is lost because of viruses than murder, hence virus-writers should be put to death. If anyone remembers where that came from, please post a link.

  25. Somebody recently made the arguement that more social and material value is lost because of viruses than murder, hence virus-writers should be put to death.

    Now that’s just ridiculous.

  26. That’s awfully harsh, Jeff. I’d settle for virus-writers being sentenced to a prison term the exact length of the man-hours it took to undue their work. So if a virus hits five million computers, and each computer needs ten hours of work to be repaired, then five million computers times ten hours equals a prison sentence of 50,000,000 hours, which is slightly more than 5,707 years if my cheap calculator can be trusted.

  27. Jesse – ok, fair enough. So he did break some things. But at least we’re all in agreement that 70 years is ridiculous.

    I mean, that sick fuck who kidnapped the 2 little kids, killing 3 people to do so, killing one of his young victims, etc…the reason he was able to do that is because he was given bail the last time he molested some kid. I don’t know if I can stress it enough…they are saying hackers are somehow worse than child molesters and murderers. Give me a goddamn break!

    And there are malicious hackers, too. I don’t mind throwing the book at someone who steals a bunch of CC numbers or something.

    Again, the government gets mad when people make them look dumb, and this guy definitely made them look dumb.

  28. If one accepts that deterrence is the product of probability of conviction multiplied by average sentence–
    10% chance of being caught x 5-year sentence = .5 Deterrence Value–

    It then looks like the silly sentences are a result of lousy enforcement. It’s easier to “throw the book at” a convict than to provide complete and effective policing.

    One must also weigh the impulse to achieve justice (repay damage done) against the desire to rehabilitate convicts (they’re still humans, after all), and the cost of enforcement and justice against the cost of letting crime happen and leaving prevention to the people with something to lose.

  29. “Virus-writers should be put to death.”

    I’ll sign that petition.
    Can you include spammers too, please?

  30. Yeah the government that has trouble paying people in the military correctly and has the worst procurement system ever devised probably has secret spaceships.

    There is nothing funnier than people on a Libertarian site actually believing that a government could be competent enough to do such a thing.

    The incentives are not set up to facilitate anything like this happening. The government only puts something inventive together, ie Atomic Bomb, when its back is against the wall.

  31. Maybe the non-terrestrial ship teleports into space, or they have big fat guys with flippers who sit in a spice bath and will the ship into space.

    I had no idea hackers and crackers were getting such long sentences. There oughta be a law against that.

  32. Jeff,

    John Tierney recently mentioned Landsburg work.

    As an aside, this once again attests to Ronson’s weird ability to get anybody to talk to him freely (See _Them_, just recently out in paperback). Who knew that being a pasty white dude with a British accent would be of such benefit as an interviewer?

    Anon

  33. “. . .I also want to know how people get promoted that high and not know how to operate a computer. If somebody didn’t know how to operate a car, or a washing machine, they’d never get that far. And yet it’s considered acceptable to not know how to operate a computer.”

    Dead Elvis,

    You?ve got to understand that these guys started and spent most of their careers before PC’s were widespread. This is especially true in the military where its only really been in the last decade that a major push to spread IT assets around has occurred.

    After having spent most of their lives not needing a PC, these guys are now in positions that either allow them the luxury of having someone else do that for them or they’re so close to retirement that it isn’t worth the effort to learn.

    Many people my age (33) in the military are like that, especially within my rating (which, traditionally, doesn’t attract the most technically adept people). I’m actually an extreme rarity, a Boatswain’s Mate who is proficient with computers (and can spell).

  34. You nailed it Ash. A bureaucracy of inept middlemen (on the take from PACs, no less) cannot keep massive superprojects under wraps.

    Of course, they might have Dr. Strangelove kept alive in a bunker somewhere…

  35. “. . .The guy did nothing with the data. Ok, trespassing (or the cyber version thereof) might be warranted, but he didn’t steal anything, didn’t break anything, etc.”

    Lowdog,

    To look at it he had to copy it (even if only into RAM) which is still considered stealing.

  36. You guys are so stupid. Talking about launching rockets and crap like that. “They” don’t use things as crude as rockets. “They” use advanced, alien, gravity manipulation technology. Duh. Also, “They” aren’t in low-earth orbit. “They” are in the outer system, maybe even going to other stars like Beta Reticuli were the E.T.’s come from. Haven’t you been paying attention.

  37. Sheesh. It’s columns like that piece by Landsburg above that give economists a bad name.

    BTW–nice link Jesse. I enjoyed that read.

  38. I should think it would be hard to launch an unscheduled rocket from Cape Canaveral… unless THAT is what Area 51 is for.

    Well, our Ithacus troop carriers can take off from an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean, far from any surface-based observers. An active radar-cancellation (ARC) transceiver onboard takes care of radar detection.

    Of course, a matte-black anti-grav spacecraft can make an undetected night-time take-off anywhere. It’s almost silent, and the spacetime-warping effects of the a-grav effectively deflects radar too. But that’s next-generation technology. Our suborbital Ithacus I transports have been operational since the 1970s, and the Block II orbit-capable upgrade since the late 1980s.

    The Ithacus ships, in combination with the derived Deimos interplanetary transports, will of course be crucial in our coming war against the Kathorpian Remnant, currently using Mars as a staging area to build their invasion fleet.

    Oops, I wasn’t supposed to say any of that.

  39. Okay Jake: Who insures it? A Gov’t wouldn’t dare utilize anything hi-tech, let alone reverse engineered exo-tech, without insuring against loss of life/property/short-term memory. Also, any equipment, no matter how exotic, needs to have its inherent depreciation budgeted.
    There’s also other interested parties to consider. Were the aliens who first built the craft unionized? If so you’ve got quite few long-fingered palms to grease.

    And can you imagine how long the Gov’t approved procedure for a proper anal probe would be?

  40. The only thing the aliens ever gave us that was worth a damn were their love dolls.

  41. Cool site, Stevo. Your secrets are safe with me.

    Judging by the size of some US and Russian reconnaisance satellites –http://satobs.org/spysat.html — I don’t think it would be impossible for there to be secret manned space stations in orbit. The amateur astronomy crowd would know something was there, but they aren’t able to see what. Crew rotation and supply could be via relatively small rockets with disposable capsules ala the old Gemini program, launched from Vandenburg AFB under the cover of “missile tests” or conventional spy satellite launches.

    The real question would be “why?” There’s little enough reason for the International Space Station to exist. I can’t think of any military/surveilance missions that would require the effort and expense of a hands-on human presence. The Soviets had a semi-secret military space station program back in the ’70s — http://www.svengrahn.pp.se/histind/Almprog/almprog.htm — but ultimately dropped it, in part, I think, for that very reason.

  42. Sheesh. It’s columns like that piece by Landsburg above that give economists a bad name.

    Huh? How so? I’d argue quite the opposite. Finding and debating interesting, counter-intuitive ideas and their implications is what economics should be about, not dry discussions of trade deficits and per-capita GPD.

  43. By Now, the Uzbekistanis Will Have Discovered the Disappearance of Their Orbital Platform

    (A “Community Voices” item from the Onion/a special briefing by “Director Roberts.”)

    Gentlemen, Mei-Ling, we are in crisis as of seven minutes ago, when space station UCCCPZ-5476-43-B failed to crest the horizon over Gdazny. Even if our adversary’s NKVD-trained orbital-warfare officers have been uncharacteristically slow on the uptake, we must assume that the Uzbekistanis have, by now, discovered the disappearance of their Rasputin orbital kinetic-energy-weapon platform.

    Please, everyone, quiet! We may be in a godforsaken backwater, and this may be a tent, but it is my operations center, and I will have silence. I will explain this to everyone once, understand? As we speak, the vital details are being burst-transmitted to your comlinks — for Klaus and Morgan, to your implants. For now, unless I indicate otherwise, please assume the worst. It’s that bad.

    Yes, operatives, it has come to this. Six weeks ago, the decision was made to open the Prometheus Dossier…

    All right. Technically, I’m not supposed to ask, but do we have any survivors of Project Yggdrasil in this room? Don’t give me that look, Molyneaux! Allegations of mutiny and cannibalism were never proven, and they may be the finest zero-gravity combat elements in the Western world…

    Man, I just love this shit.

  44. Jeff,
    Lloyd’s of course. Seeing as how they are part of the Demonic Shadow Government Cabal that really runs the world. Duh.

  45. Well for starters Brian, how much is your life worth? $10 million like Landsburge assumes? More? Less? Does it depend on the circumstances surrounding the question? Good luck on finding out how much each person “values” his life. I just think things like this are rather silly because of the assumptions involved.

    Sorry for the short response….short on time right now.

  46. In other words, people may explicitly say they place an infinite value on their own lives, but they implicitly place a dollar value on it that is far less than infinite, and you can measure that value if you know how to ask the right questions.

  47. Jeff, et al.,

    Executing virus-planters reminds me of an obscure theory of criminal justice which has been floated for centuries. The idea is that punishment should be proportional to the total harm caused and/or potential harm that could have been caused had the guilty not been caught. Successful counterfeiters, for example, would usually receive harsher sentences than one-time murderers. Sounds backwards, but the thinking is that, while a murderer only destroys one life completely and severely hurts a few others (family), a counterfeiter threatens an entire economy. Dante’s Inferno, by the way, may reflect something like this thinking (although that’s debatable): Dante placed counterfeiters surprisingly far down in Hell.

    Anyway, death for the bastards! By burning at the stake in the public square. Perhaps even a cable channel for hacker burnings!

  48. How economists figure out the dollar value people put on their own lives

    I found an article — also by Landsburg — that explains the methodology, in a much less half-assed and poorly remembered way than my own description above.

    http://slate.msn.com/id/2079475/

  49. Well for starters Brian, how much is your life worth?

    I just think things like this are rather silly because of the assumptions involved.

    Well matt, I don’t know, but are you claiming that any attempt to value life is pointless? That’s simply not true and not a serious objection, since after all I did get in my car this morning and drive to work, risking death for a paycheck. Of course I don’t really believe that’s your point, but refusing to even attempt to answer those questions because we don’t have perfect answers is what I would call rather silly. Besides, he describes what economists mean my ‘valuing’ life and he also clearly states that it’s just a rough first pass or “back of the envelope” calculation with many other issues that could come into play.

    The fact that we make unrealistic assumptions is not a valid objection either. In engineering I make many unrealistic assumptions to simplify calculations and yield a worthwhile and usable result every day and it doesn’t give me any concern. In fact if I didn’t things would be so complicated that nothing could ever be accomplished. Economics is no different in that regard at least. The question isn’t whether the model and assumptions are unrealistic (which by definition they are) but whether they are unreasonable for the question being investigated.

  50. The Stargate program is alive and well

  51. Sorry, Stevo, I didn’t see your posts on valuing life before I posted.

  52. Stevo:

    My brief rebuttal to:

    “Would you participate in a Russian Roulette game where you had a 1 in X chance of being killed and a 1 in Y chance of winning $Z million dollars?”

    is that asking how one would act is not the same as how one actually would act in a given situation. When someone’s holding a gun to a participants head and playing this game with the threat of actual death and not hypothetical death, it would be a lot more realistic and might produce different results.

    (I haven’t had time to read your link yet…I’ll try to tonight.)

  53. I’d like to think “Non-Terrestrial Officers” means the same thing as “Extra-Terrestrial Officers” – i.e. aliens – which is why the stoner’s getting 70 years.

    But why “Officers” then? Wouldn’t they be “military advisors”? Also, maybe I’m a pessimist, but the natural world has been so harsh and pitiless for centuries – I’d bet visiting aliens would be hostile like in War of the Worlds and Mars Attacks!, and make first contact guns ablazin’.

    JMoore,
    The former head of Worldcom just got 25 years, effectively a life sentence, which was nice to see in my opinion.

  54. Uh…

    I walked across the street to my car about 15 minutes ago, and while crossing the street, a lady who looks like she’s spent a little too much time with the meth (this is Oregon) said to me: “You’ve got the little green man.”

    I kid you not.

  55. In medieval Europe, counterfeiters (“coiners”) were not infrequently executed by boiling in oil or water. Granted, most crimes were capital (even into the 1800s), but counterfeiting was a crime against the state and sovereign, and thus a form of treason, deserving of especially harsh retribution.

  56. Burn him! He’s a witch! Burn him!

    (Sorry)

  57. The idea of a permanently staffed, government space base isn’t so hard to believe.

    …Actually, I’m posting from a low earth orbit right now!

  58. …a lady who looks like she’s spent a little too much time with the meth (this is Oregon) said to me: “You’ve got the little green man.”

    Uh oh… where in Oregon? Hope mom isn’t off her meds again…

    Sorry Mom – just kidding! I know you’re very good about taking them… ;)~

  59. matt — My memory of the life-valuing process was corrupted. I can’t find a Russian Roulette example on the net. I withdraw that as an example.

    But if you read the link, it’s more like, “How large a salary would you require if you had X chance of dying?” Or “Would you pay $Y to decrease your chances of dying by 1 percent?” etc.

    And these are not purely hypothetical questions. As Brian noted, every day you risk X% of dying on the freeway when you drive to work for a paycheck of $Y.

  60. Brian–

    Salem. I work on the east side of downtown near the Safeway, which has its share of characters (both inside the store and outside on the sidewalk).

  61. regulator,

    Ah yes, I think I know that area – the one near the Capitol building? I’m in Corvallis but come up to Salem once in a while (nearest Best Buy, damnit!).

  62. Yep — 12th and Center.

    Someday I will go to Corvallis, but it doesn’t sound like much is there!

  63. “are you claiming that any attempt to value life is pointless?”

    No Brian. I’m saying (or should have said) that adding individual values that people place on their own lives is something that I don’t think is really possible to do accurately at an aggregate level.

    Stevo:

    I just read the link. Landsburg is an interesting read but it doesn’t really change my opinion (see my repy to Brian above). I do regret the flippant comment about “giving economists a bad name” I made earlier. Bad choice of words on my part.

    “Is Your Life Worth $10 Million?
    Nope. But your grandson’s will be.”
    -title to the Landsburg article.

    Who says my life isn’t worth 10 million dollars? I don’t know exactly what my life is worth. But if I had 20 million sitting in bank, and the choice was to give up the 20 million or take a bullet in the head, I think I’d cough up the money. Does that mean I’ve given up more than my life is worth?

    “You’re richer than your grandparents, so your life is worth more than theirs.” -Landsburg

    In strict dollar terms maybe (and on an aggregate level, since some individuals are likely poorer than their grandparents). But how do you make that kind of utility comparison? People value things other than money, and this value may not be easily expressed in monetary terms (if it can be at all). Perhaps I’m rich and depressed while my grandparents were poor and happy. In terms of happiness, they might “value” life more than I do.

    Brian and Stevo:

    This will probaly be my last comment tonight. I’ll try and check back tomorrow morning if either of you wanna post a reply. I apoligize for the unintended thread-jack as well. Have a good night. 🙂

  64. My life used to be worth a lot–up in the thousands–but that flitty Happy Face in the WalMart commercial has been like a moth to my personal flame/ mortal coil.
    He’s rolled my price back times too numerous to mention.

  65. matt — You’re saying that the value a person places on his own life mayl vary radically from individual to individual, so you can’t talk about one “value” that applies to each person’s life. And I agree, as far as that goes.

    The figure that Landsburg throws around is more like the “market” price — an attempt to find an aggregate, average price that more or less fits what most people think is the value of their own life.

    This is all true of anything an individual owns — his life, or any other possession. For example, say I really, really value my car highly. I wouldn’t sell it for anything less than $1 million. To me, it’s worth $1 million. But the “market value” — an approximation of what most people would pay for it — might be more like $5,000. Both figures are true and useful, in different contexts. If you’re dealing with me, the individual, and you want to buy my car, it’s useful to you to know that I value it at $1 million. But if you’re interested in buying a car like mine, it’s useful to know that most sellers would give you one for about $5,000.

    In the context of Landsburg’s discussions, he’s talking about government policy decisions rather than dealing with individuals. If you accept that such decisions should be made on a collectivist, governmental basis — I don’t, and I guess you don’t either — but if you are making decisions about costs and benefits on that collectivist basis, then it’s appropriate for Landsburg to use the “market price” for human life rather than a particular individual’s.

    Basically, I think you and I agree, but we’ve been talking about slightly different things.

  66. …Actually, I’m posting from a low earth orbit right now!

    Comment by: Tom Crick at July 19, 2005 05:50 PM

    Ground control to Major Tom?

    “This is my home… “

  67. I nominate Stevo for commendation for his contribution to both the seriousness and silliness of this thread. If approved, Officer Darkly will be eligible for duty on Stati[-message truncated-]

  68. Dynamist gets the award for post #69!

  69. “If you accept that such decisions should be made on a collectivist, governmental basis — I don’t, and I guess you don’t either…”

    Well, we agree on the most important part anyway Stevo. 🙂

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