After verdict, debate rages in Terry Childs case

The guilty verdict in the case of Terry Childs, a former network administrator for the city of San Francisco 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 systems within it. But opinion appears divided over whether Childs’ actions represented intentional sabotage or a misguided, but good faith attempt, at doing his job.

“I think that it is a sad outcome,” said Matt Kesner, chief technology officer at Fenwick and West, 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 may get out much sooner for time already served.

Childs, a network administrator with San Francisco’s IT Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS), was arrested in July 2008 for allegedly 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 charges relating to allegations that he had quietly placed three modems on a city network to have backdoor access to it. But those charges were dismissed by a San Francisco magistrate judge last year.

The case attracted widespread attention because of Childs’ refusal to provide the changed network passwords to city officials and later providing them with wrong passwords. He finally disclosed the passwords to San Francisco Mayor Gary Newsom, who made a dramatic jailhouse visit to meet Childs and retrieve it from him.

Childs’ actions resulted in San Francisco’s losing administrative control of its FiberWan network for more than 10 days and spending 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. Court documents described Childs as refusing repeatedly to hand over administrative passwords to his managers because of concerns 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.

“I’m actually surprised he was found guilty,” said John Pescatore an analyst with research firm Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. “The law seemed so vague and full of loopholes that I sort of thought it would be hard to convince a jury he intentionally sabotaged the network versus causing a disruption in a good faith attempt to do his job,” Pescatore said.

“Maybe it will have some deterrence for any other disgruntled administrators that may want to hold networks or systems hostage,” he said. “But I would have liked to see more attention to the failures in process that allowed one person to hold everything hostage,” Pescatore added.

Jim Kirby, director of engineering at Dataware Services, an IT services firm in Sioux Falls, S.D., called the verdict “lame” and expressed hope that it would be thrown out by the judge. Kirby said that based on his understanding of the case, Childs’ refusal to hand over the passwords was understandable. “If what I’ve read is correct, and he simply refused to give out the password over a conference bridge with unauthorized people listening in, then this entire case is a real shame,” he said.

Others, including numerous posters on Slashdot however, had less sympathy for Childs. “There’s no question that what he did was malicious and even criminal,” said Richard Gorman, CEO of Vormetric, a vendor of data security products. Childs’ refusal to hand over the passwords needlessly caused San Francisco a “tremendous amount” of disruption and cost, Gorman said.

“If your boss demands the password, give it to them,” said a commenter named nomadic on Slashdot. “Send them a letter along with the passwords saying that you are doing it under protest if you want, warn them of the dangers, whatever, but don’t be idiotic,” nomadic wrote.

The episode highlights the dangers companies can face when they hand over the “keys to the kingdom” to a single individual as the city of San Francisco appears to have done, Gorman said. It is a situation that is common across the private and public sector , though not all instances of such insider abuse receive as much publicity.

Dealing with the issue requires companies to ensure that there is a clear separation of duties when it comes to the role of network and systems administrators, he said. Care should always be taken to ensure that one person does not have full access to all network components or have the ability to override all other administrators on a system, Gorman said.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld . Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar’s RSS feed . His e-mail address is [email protected] .

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