"He's a British citizen, he was arrested by British authorities, and the crimes were committed in Britain," Todner says. "But America say they want him, and under the new extradition treaty, they're very close to getting him."

In 2003, the computers of the U.S. Department of Defense logged 54,000 attempted intrusions. That number leaped to 79,000 in 2004, 1,300 of which were successful. The vast majority of those breaches were of "low-risk" computers, according to the Joint Task Force for Global Network Operations (JTF-GNO) under the U.S. Strategic Command. "The nature of the threat is large and diverse," a JTF-GNO spokesperson says. "It includes recreational hackers, self-styled cybervigilantes, various groups with nationalistic or ideological agendas, transnational actors, and nation-states."

In recent years, punishments by the U.S. have paled next to the 60 years McKinnon may face. Ikenna Iffih of Boston got two years' probation and a $5,000 fine in 2000 for hacking computers at NASA and the Department of Defense, intercepting log-in names and passwords and sabotaging communications. Kenneth Kwak of Chantilly, Virginia, was sentenced to five months in prison last May for using remote-control software to monitor his Department of Education supervisor's e-mail and other Web activity. Overseas hackers have received similar punishments. Ehud Tenenbaum was given an 18-month prison sentence in 2001 in his home country, Israel, for masterminding attacks on Pentagon networks (and two California teens working with him got probation). American officials never attempted to extradite Tenenbaum. But they want McKinnon.

The U.S. charges McKinnon with having penetrated 92 networks belonging to the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Department of Defense, and NASA, and having paralyzed the computers used by these agencies, inflicting some $900,000 in damage. Christopher Christie, then Newark's U.S. attorney, called McKinnon "an incredibly sophisticated cybercriminal" who had shut down the network at the Naval Weapons Station Earle, in Sandy Hook Bay, New Jersey, shortly after September 11, 2001—"when we, as a nation, had to summon all of our defenses against further attack." His case was announced to the media by Paul McNulty, then the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, whose all-star cases include "20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui and "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh.

McKinnon insists his motivations were benign: He says he wanted information about UFOs and suppressed technology. Once, he says, he found an Excel file deep within a network of the U.S. Navy: a list of officers marked "non-terrestrial," supporting (in his mind, anyway) a popular UFOlogy rumor: that the U.S. maintains weapons and military bases in outer space. "But I saw other stuff," he says. "The U.S. were hot on North Korea, and the jailer files in military bases in America astonished me. Worrying stuff. Murders, rapes, drugs, violence. This is just before these guys were about to be sent to Afghanistan."

His hacking name was SOLO—with good reason, he says. "I never told anyone other than a few friends what I found, never helped anyone else hack," he says. In 2000, trying to reinvigorate a faltering life—a troubled relationship, a career dependent on temporary contracts—he began his obsessive late-night, pot-fueled cybersearches. "It was a distraction from problems," he says. "I stopped looking for work, never thought about going on holiday."