In his new memoir released Thursday, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sought to explain what he called "the hacker's disease": long hours in front of a computer fueled by intense focus, endless curiosity and meticulous attention to detail.
"I am – all hackers are, and I would argue all men are - a little bit autistic," Assange wrote, according to an excerpt from his autobiography, which was published without his consent.
For hackers who run afoul of the law, claiming to have a form of autism has become a popular defense. It has support from some autism experts who say people with the condition are often both computer-savvy and naive, and thus should receive special legal consideration. But others are skeptical of suspected hackers claiming to be autistic -- typically after they have been arrested -- and say the condition should not be an excuse for committing a crime.
In June, suspected hacker Ryan Cleary, who is alleged to be a leader of the hacker group LulzSec, was granted bail after he claimed he has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism characterized by social difficulties and obsessive or repetitive behavior. Adrian Lamo, who was arrested in 2003 for breaking into the network of The New York Times, was also diagnosed with Asperger's. So was Gary McKinnon, who has been fighting extradition to the United States since he was caught breaking into computer networks of NASA and the Pentagon in 2002 in what authorities called "the biggest military hack of all time."
Experts say the American legal system is just starting to look at whether people with autism who commit crimes should be viewed differently under the law. They note that Asperger's was not recognized as an official diagnosis until 1994 and that people with the condition suspected of committing crimes should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis like people with other disorders.
"Unfortunately law enforcement and the justice system do not have a grasp of this group yet," said Ruth Aspy, co-founder of the Ziggurat Group, a private practice in Plano, Texas, that specializes in autism assessment.
Experts say people with high-functioning forms of autism often spend long hours on computers as a way to reach out to the world and acquire information about a particular interest, a habit that can border on obsession. McKinnon, for example, claims he was looking for evidence of UFOs when he hacked into U.S. government computer networks.
People with the condition often have a strong sense of right and wrong, autism experts say. But they could also become so obsessed with researching their interests that they do not stop to consider the legal ramifications of, say, breaking into a computer network. Or they may be too naive to realize that they're committing a crime.
"There are individuals with Asperger's syndrome whose only window into the social world is their computer screens, and they bring their naivety and gullibility to that medium," said Ami Klin, director of the Marcus Autism Center.
But as society has gained more awareness about autism, the term has been used too broadly to describe anyone who lacks social skills, said Rhea Paul, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine Child Study Center. People with the condition are often very literal-minded and have trouble being deceptive -- a trait that may not make for successful computer hackers, she said.
"It's understandable that someone accused of hacking might use that as a defense because they think they can get away with it," she said. "But I would personally be a bit skeptical of that claim."
McKinnon was diagnosed with Asperger's by Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the world’s leading experts in autism and director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. Baron-Cohen has said McKinnon's Asperger's has given him "extreme difficulties with social awareness and empathy."
"In terms of criminal responsibility, it might be more appropriate that he be judged as having the mind of a child who inadvertently breaks a rule ... unaware of how his behaviour will be viewed by others," he wrote in a 2009 medical report, according to the Daily Mail.
McKinnon's extradition case, which is still pending, has become a human rights cause in Britain. There's a "Free Gary" website, and many British politicians and celebrities have argued against him being tried in the United States, including former U.K. prime minister Gordon Brown, pop star Sting and Pink Floyd member David Gilmour.
But while claiming to be autistic may generate sympathy from the public, it should not be an excuse for committing a crime, said E.J. Hilbert, a former FBI cyberinvestigator and president of the cybersecurity firm Online Intelligence.
"I know a number of hackers who are not autistic in any way shape or form," Hilbert said. "It does not discount the fact they're doing something illegal."
In some cases, the defense has garnered a measure of sympathy from a judge. In 2009, a Los Angeles hacker named Viachelav Berkovich, 34, received a reduced sentence for his role in a multimillion-dollar computer-fraud scheme after the judge considered he was diagnosed with Asperger’s.
But in other cases, the claim has not been effective. In 2009, an attorney for Albert Gonzalez, who pleaded guilty to one of the largest credit and debit card thefts in American history, asked a judge for a minimum sentence after a psychiatrist determined Gonzalez's criminal behavior was consistent with Asperger's disorder. The judge rejected his defense and sentenced Gonzalez to 20 years in prison. Lamo has even said his Asperger's diagnosis should not be seen as an excuse for his criminal behavior.
For his alleged crimes, McKinnon faces a stiff sentence -- up to 70 years in prison. If he is extradited to the United States, Baron-Cohen has said he fears McKinnon will commit suicide.
Other experts have similar concerns about incarcerating people with autism. They say they are particularly vulnerable to harm in prison because they have trouble picking up on body language and facial expressions of other inmates.
"They live in a naive world where they're isolated," said Pat Schissel, executive director of the Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism Association. "Incarcerating them is a hundred fold worse."
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