Update: City IT admin pleads innocent to network tampering charges

San Francisco IT officials still lack access to fiber WAN that carries 60% of city traffic

SAN FRANCISCO -- A disgruntled network administrator today pleaded innocent to charges that he set up an unauthorized access system for a major city of San Francisco computer network.

Terry Childs, 43, who pleaded not guilty to computer tampering charges in San Francisco Superior Court, is being held on $5 million bond, an unusually high amount for a computer tampering case. He faces seven years in prison if convicted on all counts. He was arrested on Sunday and charged with four counts of computer tampering. Judge Paul Alvarado scheduled a bail hearing set for July 23.

Administrators have been struggling for the past few weeks to regain control of the city's fiber WAN after Childs allegedly reset administrative passwords to its switches and routers, and refused to divulge them to authorities. He is also alleged to have planted unauthorized devices on the city's network.

As of today, the city has still not recovered administrative control of its routers, but the WAN is operating normally, said Ron Vinson, chief administrative officer with the city's Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS). He said it was hard to predict when the problem would be fixed, noting that it could take days or weeks to resolve the situation. "We feel very confident that we will have full access," Vinson said.

The network, used to connect computers located in buildings throughout the city, carries about 60% of the city government's network traffic.

Childs is a network administrator in the DTIS, which runs, among other things, San Francisco's e-mail system, Web site, 311 customer service call center and the telecommunications infrastructure.

He had became erratic and then hostile with colleagues after a recent security audit uncovered his activities on the network, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Childs was somber and respectful in his brief court appearance today as he stood before the judge handcuffed from behind and clad in the orange sweatsuit issued by the San Francisco County Jail.

A supporter in the courtroom, Dana Hom, told reporters at the courthouse that Childs should have been placed on administrative leave and investigated -- not arrested -- for the incident. Hom, a former director in the city agency who called himself a "casual friend" of Childs, blamed the incident on "poor, poor management" within the department.

"I have seen what I thought was the worst, but this takes the cake," said Hom, who now runs a PC repair company in Windsor, Calif. "I'm here because I see a travesty of justice."

Hom described Childs as "very gentle" and "one of the most competent IT engineers ever."

Hom said in a later telephone conversation with IDG News Service that as network administrator, Childs was entitled to have the passwords to the WAN switches and routers. He was probably unable to notify management of password changes because customized change-management software built to track this type of data "has been broken for years," Hom said. Hom said he did not know why Childs is now refusing to divulge the passwords.

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Terry Childs passes through an office at Superior Court in San Francisco where he pleaded not guilty to charges of computer tampering. (Photo by Robert McMillan/IDG News Service)

A source within the department, who spoke on condition of anonymity, painted a different picture of Childs. According to the source, just before his July 13 arrest, Childs intimidated the department's new chief of security, Jeana Pieralde, while she was conducting an audit of the network at San Francisco's data center. "He started to appear at a doorway and take a picture and walk away, clearly trying to intimidate her, watching her through the glass," the source said.

At one point, he stood at the door and physically blocked her from exiting a room. "She went around the corner and locked herself into the office and called her boss," the source said. "At that point, we knew he had something he was hiding."

Childs' former public defender, who stepped down Thursday because of an unspecified conflict of interest, said that the $5 million bail is excessive. The DA's office has sought $1 million bonds in murder cases, said Mark Jacobs, an attorney with the San Francisco Office of the Public Defender. "I think they are trying to send a statement about how serious they take it," he said of the Childs case.

The city is now working with Cisco Systems Inc. to regain access to the network. If the Cisco routers and switches that have been tampered with have to be replaced, the city could easily face a $250,000 bill to replace them, Vinson said.

San Francisco began rolling out the fiber WAN about four years ago as a less-costly alternative to leased data lines. The city has spent more than $3 million on the system.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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