Nearly a year and a half after his arrest, the trial of a former San Francisco Department of Technology employee accused of withholding passwords to the city’s main computer network in 2008 begins Monday.
The case has drawn widespread attention from tech blogs and even required the direct intervention of Mayor Gavin Newsom, who is scheduled to testify later on during the months-long trial.
Terry Childs, now 45, has been in custody on $5 million bail since July 2008, when prosecutors essentially accused him of commandeering the city’s new FiberWAN network, which he had been in charge of implementing.
The network handles most of the city’s computer traffic, and is used for several vital services, including payroll, e-mail and some Police Department systems.
Childs, of Pittsburg, is charged with one felony count of computer network tampering with an enhancement alleging the loss of more than $200,000. A judge earlier this year dismissed three other felony counts against him, relating to his alleged installation of foreign modems at network sites throughout the city.
Prosecutors said at the time of Childs’ arrest that because they weren’t exactly sure what he had done to the network, and because he refused to hand over the passwords to his superiors at the department and to police, it could have caused a full system failure if power were to be shut down.
Prosecutor Conrad Del Rosario alleged that Childs “had engineered the entire system without following any type of protocol” mandated by the Department of Technology and engaged in a “pattern and practice … of putting devices on the network that were unknown to anyone.”
Childs’ attorney Richard Shikman has argued that though Childs may not have followed some department protocols, he never intended to damage the system. He claimed that prosecutors have engaged in “fear mongering” and noted that no city services were actually disrupted.
According to Del Rosario, the city had to spend $750,000 trying to regain control of the network, and more than $1 million more doing vulnerability testing.
Childs, who had worked as a computer network engineer for the department since 2003, was tasked with configuring and testing the devices on the FiberWAN network. The network was actually conceived in 2005 by another man, Archie Lee, a former engineer manager at the department.
Childs reportedly clashed with department management at times, and kept much of his work, as well as administrative passwords, from them and from other engineers working on the system.
Childs’ supervisor testified at his preliminary court hearing last December that Childs refused to give him the passwords because he felt the network design was his own intellectual property and that he “had copyrighted the configurations.”
The supervisor recalled Childs telling him that he was proud of the network he had built and “wouldn’t do anything to harm it.”
In July 2008, Childs’ bosses discovered that he would have a problem continuing to work on the FiberWAN because it accessed a criminal database that required all users submit to a criminal background check.
According to prosecutors, Childs’ employment applications were inconsistent about his background and he refused to agree to a background check.
It was later discovered that he had prior felony convictions in Kansas in 1983 for robbery and burglary, for which he served four years in prison. He was also convicted of a firearm possession charge in 1995.
During a July 9 confrontation with management, Childs was told he was being reassigned off the FiberWAN project. When they asked for the passwords, he allegedly refused and was suspended from his job. He was later arrested.
The city could not access the FiberWAN network for 12 days, until Childs agreed to give up the passwords to Newsom during a visit from the mayor to Child’s jail cell.
Newsom said last week that he plans on being called to testify during the trial, possibly in January or February.
Childs faces a maximum five-year prison sentence if convicted, but he would receive credit for his time already served in jail plus additional good-conduct credit.
Opening statements in the trial begin Monday morning in San Francisco Superior Court. The trial is estimated to last until mid-March.