Simon Baron Cohen explains the mind of the Pentagon hacker

His cousin Sacha may be grabbing the headlines of late, but Simon Baron Cohen has also been making the news, albeit more inconspicuously.

One of the world’s leading experts in autism, Professor Baron Cohen has been elected a fellow of the British Academy, which champions and supports the humanities and social sciences. Each year, it appoints outstanding scholars in these fields.

Moreover, the Cambridge University-based Professor Baron Cohen has given his support to Gary McKinnon, the Briton with Asperger’s Syndrome — a form of autism — who is facing extradition to the United States for hacking into the Pentagon computer systems. Professor Baron Cohen, who assessed Mr McKinnon’s condition last year, says the hacker should not be treated as a terrorist as there was no malice in his intentions. He tells People: “It was definitely Gary’s Asperger’s Syndrome that caused him to behave in the way he did. There was social naivety on the one hand, but also his very narrow obsessive interest in hacking into computers to get the truth — or what he thought was the truth — about what the US government was up to, but without any malicious intention. In fact, he thought he was doing the right thing.”

Mr McKinnon admits he hacked into US computers between 2001 and 2002. He says he was looking for evidence to show that the authorities have covered up the existence of UFOs. The Americans claim he perpetrated “the biggest military hack of all time”. He was indicted in 2002, and in 2006 the UK authorities agreed to extradite him to the US for trial.

Professor Baron Cohen, a professor of developmental psychopathology and director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, says it would be wrong to treat him as a terrorist if his behaviour is effectively as a result of a disability. “He broke the law so something has to happen, but I think it would be unfair to treat him in the same way as someone who wanted to cause harm. In many ways he functions very well but he had some quite major blind spots about the potential consequences of what he was up to.”

Based in Cambridge, Professor Baron Cohen grew up in north London. Like his cousin, he is an old Haberdashers’ Aske’s boy. He went on to gain a psychology PhD at University College London. So has he seen his cousin’s new film? Of course, he went to the premier. “It’s shocking in places but I think it’s very original — I can certainly say that. We are all very proud of him.”

Last updated: 11:21am, July 23 2009