If you can’t beat them, get to know them, journalist Misha Glenny says in his July 2011 TED talk about hackers, which was just posted. Hackers can wreak financial havoc, affect national security, and generally cause mayhem. But “no one wants to talk to these guys, the hackers, who are doing everything. Instead, we prefer these really dazzling technological solutions, which cost a huge amount of money,” says Glenny. “[W]here we have a surfeit of technology in the cybersecurity industry, we have a definite lack of, called me old-fashioned, human intelligence.” So Glenny went to talk to those troublemakers and profiles six hackers.
Perhaps most intriguingly, Glenny says that Simon Baron-Cohen, an expert in autism, has proposed that many hackers “have characteristics which are consistent with Asperger’s syndrome.” This disability has allowed them to develop their skills; furthermore, many of them became cyber-savvy in their early or mid-teen years, when they were socially isolated. “[W]e should not be throwing in jail people who have such disabilities and skills because they have lost their way socially or been duped.” But this is not a purely altruistic argument, as Glenny says that using only the criminal justice system to handle law-breaking hackers is tantamount to “nurturing a monster we cannot tame.”
In Slate in 2009, Erica Westley asked whether criminals with Asperger’s should be treated different. Like Glenny, she cited the case of Gary McKinnon, who a decade ago hacked into NASA and other governmental computers looking for evidence of extraterrestrials. “His crime was a symptom of this condition, he says, and serving time in an American prison would be the worst kind of torture given the severity of his social impairments,” Westley wrote. Two years later, McKinnon continues to fight extradition to the U.S. from the United Kingdom.