The Strong, Silent Type

Janis Sharp

Mother of Gary McKinnon

Pinksy the cat patrols silently outside, watching a collection of recently rescued goldfish criss-cross the garden pond at the house of Janis Sharp, mum of Gary McKinnon.

The prowling feline is named in honour of Pink Floyd musician David Gilmour – the rock star who helped rescue this family as they faced mounting psychiatric and medical bills for defending their son Gary against a possible 60-year US jail sentence.

Inside, Gary’s mum Janis talks affectionately about her son, who in the past month has been hailed as “‘number 1’ on the list of black hat hackers” by renegade hacking group Anonymous.

The group say his alleged 2002 raid on 97 Pentagon and NASA computers where the US claimed he stole passwords, deleted files and shutdown networks on military bases, makes him the best “black hat” hacker ever in a list of the world’s top ten.

Strange then, that the “vulnerable” son that Janis talks about actually bears more resemblance to a famous detective than a criminal mastermind. “Believe it or not Gary looks unbelievably like Benedict Cumberbatch,” Janis says.

“When Sherlock was on TV, even his solicitor Karen Todner wrote to me and said: ‘God, he’s Gary’s twin!'”

It is three years since Home Secretary Theresa May blocked Gary’s extradition to the US on the grounds of his human rights after ruling there was, “no doubt he was seriously ill.”

Still instantly recognisable, Gary shuns interviews and public places where he can be recognised. Gary’s mum says that like many others with Asperger’s, he has a “fear of socialising,” although he enjoys talking about UFO’s and the theories that surround them.

“Many people with Asperger’s shut themselves away in their rooms. It’s a choice thing,” says Janis.

“I remember once a girlfriend of Gary’s had arranged a party. Her relatives were all there. They were all standing in one corner of the room looking not happy at all and Gary was in the middle at this big table on his computer. I went up to him and said ‘Gary, it’s a party.’ He looked at me and said ‘But it’s my party too,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, but this is not what you do!'”

People with Asperger’s – a type of high functioning autism – often have an obsession with logic, a heightened sense of justice and an intense curiosity that makes them want to know everything about a particular subject. It’s a perfect personality match for a hacker.

In Gary’s case the curiosity involved his search for a US cover-up of evidence of extraterrestrial life – under the hacker tag ‘Solo,’ a tag previously used by another infamous hacker.

Today Janis admits she is worried for the future of another similar hacker. Lauri Love, 28, is also facing extradition for breaking into US Government computers.

“He also has Asperger’s, is idealistic and says too much politically,” she says.

She fears many of Britain’s brightest computer brains may be being wasted and criminalised when they may offer far more skills in a cyber addicted society.

“The shame is people are trying to get children off their computers, but they’re often so advanced. Technology is getting so fast and and moving so quickly.

“Around one in 100 children have Asperger’s. Do we have a way of harnessing their skills? We need an outlet that can harness what they have to offer in the best possible way.”

John Arquilla, Professor of Defence Analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School, has argued that winning future cyber wars may not be possible without hiring master hackers who can “walk through firewalls.”

As one of the first US figures to call for Gary to be allowed to go free, Arquilla says the world’s best hackers often have a “startling intelligence, and a deep attraction to the beauty and complexity of cyber space.

“They are not motivated by a desire to disrupt: if anything, they are devoted to free, secure flows of information,” he says. He compares hackers to being like “shy woodland creatures” – a description that has them “down to a tee”, Janis says.

Many people with Asperger’s are already being employed in America. Paypal founder Peter Thiel says: “In Silicon Valley many of the more successful entrepreneurs seem to be suffering from a mild form of Asperger’s, where you’re missing the socialisation gene. It happens to be a plus for innovation and creating great companies.”

Janis, who wrote her autobiography ‘Saving Gary McKinnon: A Mother’s Story’ in 2013, adds: “In Silicon Valley they employ loads of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, because they are attracted to the logic. They’re extremely good at their obsession. They can talk about it until everyone is bored out of their head,” she laughs.

“Gary is not a genius,” she says, “but simply has a lateral way of thinking and did significantly less than he has been accused of,” she maintains. “It is wrong to blame him and others for crossing over into less legal computing methods.” She adds, “if you leave a child in a room with a computer, human nature means they always want to see what’s on the other side of the fence. If you tell a child not to search for something – of course they will, because you can find information on anything on the internet, and it can lure the obsessive into dangerous waters.”

Gary, 49, is currently living with his girlfriend Lucy Clarke, 40, who he met during the course of his ordeal. Gary now runs a small search engine optimisation business. “He’s very young for his age, innocent but not backward,” she says, “he sings, he plays songs – he’s a very good musician and he cooks. They’re very different but Lucy is good for him. They both love cats, food and music. Lucy would like a family and Gary is amazing with kids, but I think it might be too late for them to have children. Gary also worries about the responsibility. He can flip from job to job; if someone says something he leaves. He can’t take the confrontation.

“Incredibly it was only after Gary was interviewed on TV following his arrest by the National Hi-Tech crime unit in the UK that he was diagnosed,” Janis says.

“During the TV interview, the interviewer said ‘Obviously you thought you would leave a bit of egg on their faces?’ and Gary said quizzically ‘It wasn’t egg!’”

Then the interviewer told him: “At worst you could have sent terror through the network,” and Gary, who had posted a note during his US military hack saying ‘Your security is crap’ replied: “I don’t think you can send terror through a network by leaving a note.”

Janis explains: “People who had been watching started calling me, a combination of parents of people with Asperger’s and experts. They realised Gary was taking the questions literally, and explained, ‘he’s got Asperger’s.’”

They also noted his monotone voice and lack of facial expression – also clear traits of ‘Aspies.’ Within weeks he had been diagnosed with the condition by leading UK experts Simon Baron- Cohen and Thomas Berney.

Many people with ASD change when they socialise with others with the same condition. “We went to a Jools Holland concert for people with autism and Asperger’s and the autistic performers and autistic audience all got on like a house on fire, Janis says, “it’s almost like an alien race who light up when they’re together and when they talk to each other. Many people with Asperger’s often say they feel as though they are living on the wrong planet. There’s even a website for people with ASD called www.wrongplanet.net.”

The end of the 10-year campaign to block Gary’s extradition has left Janis looking happy and relaxed.

“In Silicon Valley many of the more successful entrepreneurs seem to be suffering from a mild form of Asperger’s”

She says of the experience: “You’re trapped and you’re under intense pressure. The fear is awful. Only someone who has gone through it would understand it. You are actually living in terror. You wake up every morning with this fear and go to bed every night with it. You are imprisoned by terror.”

She is careful to point out the UK Crown Prosecution Statement that says: “The evidence we have does not come near to reflecting the criminality that is alleged by the American authorities.”

The family say they were surprised and hugely grateful when Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour offered to help them meet their bills. “David Gilmour wanted to help us,” Janis says, “I wouldn’t accept money, but he insisted and paid Gary’s psychiatrist bills, which amounted to just under £10,000.

“Then he donated on our behalf, thousands of pounds each to Liberty, NAS, Research Autism, Simon Baron Cohen’s ART (Autistic Research Trust) plus various amounts to others who had helped us. We had just been forced to sell our house and David Gilmour and the electronic band The Orb, who collaborated with him, really saved our lives when we were truly at rock bottom in every sense of the word.”

She is also deeply thankful for the endless support of Trudie Styler, Sting and Sting’s sister Anita Sumner and the support of thousands of others including Home Secretary Theresa May for her incredibly courageous decision to keep Gary in the UK. “The support from our rag tag Twitter army was also incredible and proved to be an awesome force,” she says.

At home, Janis and her husband of 42 years, Wilson, have fostered more than 60 children, and are currently busy caring for three children under four in their Hertfordshire home. The youngest of the three wobbles happily across the floor in front of us.

“It’s very upsetting when the time comes for them to move on as you can’t help worrying about their future and how they will fare.” She says. “They quickly become part of your family. When the first group we fostered left we would find ourselves crying for months afterwards.

“Even when we were watching the extradition debate there was a knock on the door and there were two young social workers standing outside in the dark with a little boy and his baby brother. We knew we shouldn’t take them at that point in time because there was so much going on, and so much to do, but we couldn’t say no.”