19-year-old Ryan Cleary was arrested last Monday at his home in Wickford, Essex in the UK on charges of bringing down the website of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca). His arrest is part of a probe by Scotland Yard and the FBI about the hacking group LulzSec, which has claimed responsibility for hacking attacks on the websites of the US Senate and the CIA. In the City of Westminster magistrates court earlier today, Cleary’s lawyer, Ben Cooper, said that his client has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome by a psychologist and that he had concerns about him remaining in custody over the weekend. The court was told that Cleary is “of high intelligence but is agoraphobic and has difficulty interacting with other people.”
Cleary had been granted bail but prosecutors, say the Guardian, have objected. Wearing a white t-shirt, Cleary answered only to confirm his name and that he understood the charges against him; he did not enter a plea to the five offenses against him:
He is charged with conspiring with other people on or before 20 June to create a remotely controlled network of zombie computers, known as a “botnet”, to carry out distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, where websites are flooded with traffic to make them crash.
He is alleged to have carried out similar attacks against the British Phonographic Industry’s website on 29 October last year and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s website on or before 20 June.
According to the Telegraph, if Cleary wins bail on Monday, he will be under the following restrictions:
… he will not have access to the internet and will not have in his possession any device which could access the internet.
The conditions also state that no device capable of accessing the internet can be within his home address, that he must live and sleep at that address, and that he must not leave his address other than in the company of his mother, Rita Cleary.
Cleary’s case recalls that of another British man, Gary McKinnon who is currently fighting an order to be extradited to the US on charges of hacking into 97 computers belonging to NASA, the Department of Defense and several branches of the military shortly after the 9/11 attacks. McKinnon, who is in his early 40s, was diagnosed formally with Asperger’s Syndrome in August of 2008 and has said that he hacked into the military sites looking for UFOs. If extradited to the US, McKinnon faces a trial of eight counts of computer fraud and could potentially serve 10 years in jail and pay a $250,000 fine; he has received the support of several Members of Parliament to remain in the UK.
The National Autistic Society (NAS) has also put its support behind McKinnon (I am seeking to find out if any of the big US autism organizations have made any statements regarding his case). In a September 8, 2009, statement, the NAS made the following comments about crime and individuals on the autism spectrum:
Generally speaking, people with autism in the criminal justice system can be particularly vulnerable as the nature of their difficulties may not be recognised or may be misunderstood. It is therefore vital that legal experts are familiar with autism and its complexities
The vast majority of individuals with autism are law abiding and respect the rules of society. On occasions when a person with autism comes to the attention of the police and other services it is normally a result of their social and communication difficulties being misunderstood and because they are not given appropriate support.
The NAS site also has a guide for criminal justice professionals and another article outlines the rights of indivduals with disabilities when they are in prison.
Needless to say, these are extremely tough subjects to talk about, especially as a parent. My own teenage son Charlie is not inclined towards computers at all. It is very difficult for him to understand rules, like how far he can swim out into the ocean: Charlie is a superb swimmer and, as far as he is concerned, what’s wrong with him swimming out beyond the waves where the dolphins are? He’s good at swimming, he loves the ocean waves, and he’s confident he can get back to shore. But as his parents, we must take precautions and after he swam out very far yesterday, the lifeguard went out and brought back a very calm Charlie on a surfboard.
I don’t know Ryan Cleary or more than the details of his case from news reports. Of course, into government and military websites is a far greater breech of any law or rules than swimming far out into the ocean. I can see how it’s possible for someone on the autism spectrum, once they’ve started on something, and especially something they are good at — in contrast to their painful day-to-day challenges in navigating social situations — just not bothering to stop, even if they know the law.
As a parent I see the cases of Cleary and of McKinnon as huge warnings. Our kids have huge talents but they often have no idea how to harness them in a way that is appropriate for society. Given direction and understanding, these talents could be incredibly helpful — but our kids need to be taught this.
The Telegraph reports that Cleary’s mother, Rita Cleary, was watching from the public gallery when he appeared in court on Saturday and “made no comment as she left court.” Yes she, and her son, are very much on my mind this weekend. I’ll be following what happens when Ryan Cleary again appears in court on Monday.
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