Fate of network admin Terry Childs now in jury’s hands

Terry Childs’ battle to avoid being convicted over what his supporters characterize as a workplace dispute that got out of hand is almost over.

Closing arguments concluded Monday in the city of San Francisco’s case against Childs, the network administrator charged with violating hacking laws by refusing to hand over network passwords for the city’s FiberWAN during a 12-day period in 2008.


Childs was charged in July 2008 and has been held on US$5 million bail ever since. The highly technical trial, which featured testimony from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and John Stewart, chief security officer of Cisco Systems Inc., has dragged on for nearly six months.

By Monday, five of the 18 jurors and alternates selected for the trial had dropped out, and the remaining jurors seemed relieved to see the arguments wrap up as they left the courtroom Monday afternoon. They will return Tuesday to start their deliberations.

Childs faces five years in prison if he is convicted for disrupting service to the city’s computer system by withholding administrative passwords.

The case hinges on Childs’ refusal to hand over router passwords to city staffers during a tense confrontation with management, a human resources representative and police officers on July 9, 2008. Three days later he was arrested.

In court Monday, Childs’ attorney, Richard Shikman, argued that his client is a security-conscious professional who simply balked during a stressful situation. Childs did not believe the other people in the room and those who were conferenced in via speakerphone were authorized to have access to the passwords. “This case smacks of an employment dispute that went awry,” Shikman said. “It could have been handled differently.”

Childs was simply doing his job, he argued — an important point for the defense, since under California law Childs cannot be found guilty if the disruption he caused occurred as the result of a good-faith effort to do his job.

San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Conrad Del Rosario portrayed Childs as a self-obsessed man who locked the city out of its own network in the misguided hope that it would make it impossible for the city to fire him. “This was nothing more than his attempt to become an indispensable employee,” Del Rosario said, “You suspend me; the FiberWAN goes down.”

Prosecutors also need to have convinced the jury that San Francisco computer services were disrupted, even though the network continued to operate smoothly while Childs withheld the passwords from Richard Robinson, the chief operations officer for the city’s Department of Technology and Information Services (DTIS). Childs eventually handed over the passwords to San Francisco’s mayor, saying Newsom was the only person qualified to handle them.

The fact that the city was unable to do things such as prevent Childs himself from accessing the network shows that computer services were indeed disrupted, Del Rosario argued Monday.

He also disputed the defense’s argument that Childs was being extremely security conscious and trying to protect the city’s network from a possible insider threat. “It’s the defendant who they needed to protect against,” he said. “They just didn’t know it at the time.”

Whether that is the characterization of Childs that will stick is now a matter for the jury to decide.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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