After verdict, debate rages in Terry Childs case

Some insist he was punished for doing his job, others disagree

The guilty verdict in the case of Terry Childs, a former San Francisco city government network administrator who was charged with locking up a key city network for days in 2008, is evoking mixed responses within the industry.

Many agree that the case provides a classic example of what can go wrong when one individual is allowed unfettered authority across an enterprise network and all of the systems within it. But opinion appears to be divided over whether Childs' actions represented intentional sabotage or a good faith -- but misguided -- attempt to do his job.

"I think that it is a sad outcome," said Matt Kesner, chief technology officer at Fenwick and West LLP, a San Francisco-based law firm. "I'm sorry to see that this ended in a criminal conviction. While he was likely misguided, he seems to have thought he was doing his best to protect the IT system," Kesner said.

Childs' conviction is also a cautionary tale, Kesner said: "As we all try to do more with less money and fewer resources, we need to maintain the checks and balances in our IT organizations."

A federal jury in San Francisco on Tuesday found Childs guilty of one felony count of network tampering resulting in damages of more than $200,000. He faces a maximum of five years in prison, though he could get out much sooner for time already served.

Childs, a network administrator in the San Francisco Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS), was arrested in July 2008 and charged with locking up access to the city's FiberWAN network by resetting administrative passwords to its switches and routers.

Childs was also charged with three other felony counts relating to allegations that he had quietly placed three modems on a city network to give himself backdoor access to the network. But those charges were dismissed by a San Francisco magistrate judge last year.

The case attracted widespread attention because Childs initially refused to give city officials the changed network passwords and later gave them incorrect passwords. He finally disclosed the passwords to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who made a dramatic jailhouse visit to meet Childs and retrieve the information from him.

Because of Childs' actions, San Francisco lost administrative control of its FiberWan network for more than 10 days and had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to fully recover from the disruption. There was also widespread concern among city IT officials about the potential for Childs to use his access to the network to destroy vital data. It was a concern that prompted prosecutors to ask for an unusually steep $5 million bond in a bid to keep him in jail until his trial.

Childs claimed that his actions stemmed from a desire to protect the city's networks. According to court documents, Childs repeatedly refused to hand over administrative passwords to his managers because he was concerned that the passwords would be indiscriminately shared with management and third-party contractors, thereby jeopardizing the security of the network.

Others saw Childs' behavior as nothing more than the actions of a disgruntled network administrator wielding his power to hold the entire city ransom. Much of that difference in opinion was reflected in blogs and analysts' comments in the wake of Tuesday's ruling.

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