5 Feb 2012

Can autism be used as hacking defence?

Computer hacking and autism are increasingly mentioned in the same breath thanks to several high profile court cases but Channel 4 News asks if autism can really be used as a defence to online crime?

Prosecutors claim the condition, typified by fixated behaviour and poor social skills, has led some to break into computer systems.

Dylan Wilson was diagnosed with a form of autism – called Asperger Syndrome – when he was 16. Now aged 39 he has spent years in his bedroom in Lincoln working on his computer. Often more comfortable with cyberspace than face-to-face friendships.

Mr Wilson said: “People with Asperger Syndrome think logically, computers think the same. It’s like we think alike. You could say a dog is a man’s best friend: computers are our best friend.”

It is this condition – Asperger Syndrome – that is now under the spotlight. Both in America and the UK, it is increasingly being used as a defence in high profile hacking cases.

Can autism be used as hacking defence? (Getty)

Those with the syndrome are often obsessive, may lack empathy, and have difficulty interacting with others. People therefore who are capable of sitting for hours on end in front of a computer looking for ways to break into a system.

Dylan Wilson himself has never been in trouble with the law and is keen that not everybody with autism is tarnished with that hackers’ brush.

He said: “There’s people out there who probably still don’t understand Asperger Syndrome.

“People don’t understand about their social skills, and because their relationship with computers is good, people are worried that they may be tomorrow’s alleged hackers, and that might send alarm bells ringing.”

Read more: 'Tens of thousands' of cyber attacks every day

The hackers’ disease?

But there may be a reason those alarm bells are ringing. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange calls it the hackers’ disease.

All hackers – he said – himself included are a little bit autistic. Most recently Ryan Cleary – alleged to be a leader of the hacker group LulzSec was granted bail after he claimed he has Asperger Syndrome. And Gary McKinnon – fighting extradition to the US after he was caught breaking into the NASA and Pentagon computers – is also using it as a defence.

Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, said: “People with autism tend to know right from wrong and often they have a very strong sense of what is good and what is bad; their sense of morality is very clear. But in some cases it may be that they become so preoccupied by their search for information that lose sight of the consequences of their actions.”

And this was the case, he said, with Gary McKinnon who had come to his clinic seeking a diagnosis of Asperger’s.

He said: “In his case the computer was the tool he was using to get at information that he thought would be in the best interests of humanity so he pursued it, and he didn’t really let go of that, it became an obsession in his case.”

There is doubt among experts that it can be used as a defence by the sheer fact a person with the condition is likely to know right from wrong.

Computer hacking expert Peter Sommer said it is only recently it has been used a legal tool. “Looking back at hacker cases I have done a fair number where the accused have displayed behaviour that is often now associated with Asperger’s and that includes obsessional activity, great determination, a sense of invincibility and a lot of arrogance

“But that doesn’t amount of lack of understanding ultimately of the difference between right and wrong, and that as I understand it is the real legal test.”

The next few months will show whether this does work as a defence – Cleary’s case comes up in May; a decision on McKinnon extradition is in July. But what it will also highlight is something much more positive. Experts like Professor Baron-Cohen say this is a golden opportunity to harness the skills that people like this have and support them in putting their talents to good use.

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