The attorney for a former city of San Francisco network engineer accused of denying the city access to its own computer network said today that his client is a stressed-out “workaholic” passionate about network security and did not commit a crime.

Opening statements began this morning in San Francisco Superior Court in the trial of Terry Childs, a former lead engineer for the San Francisco Department of Technology.

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.

The fiber-optic network handles most of the city’s computer traffic between several departments, including payroll, email and law enforcement services, and Childs had been in charge of implementing it.

Prosecutors say Childs repeatedly refused to give administrative passwords to the system to his supervisors and to police. He only later agreed to hand over the passwords to Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Childs is charged with one felony count of computer network tampering with an enhancement alleging the loss of more than $200,000.

His attorney, Richard Shikman, who has in the past described the charge as “essentially an anti-hacking statute,” argued today that protocols in the computer networking profession call for network administrators to keep rigorous guard over their passwords, even from their bosses.

“There is this sensitivity and security surrounding passwords,” Shikman said. He said Childs has been a dedicated network engineer his whole life and “has an excellent employment history.”

“In the networking industry, security is paramount,” whether protecting against espionage or hackers, or for “internal security,” Shikman said.

“Disgruntled coworkers can do something that is not right,” he added.

Prosecutor Conrad Del Rosario painted Childs as the disgruntled worker, saying he refused to get along with his superiors, was combative and suspicious, and refused repeated requests for the passwords, even after his superiors decided to remove him from the job when they realized he had a criminal background.

Childs began working for the department in 2003, and was later assigned to implement the FiberWAN, which had been designed in 2005 by another man, Archie Lee, a former engineer manager at the department.

In May 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 Del Rosario, 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.

According to Del Rosario, Childs reportedly told a coworker at the time, “They can’t screw with me, because I’ve got the keys to the kingdom.”

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, according to Del Rosario.

“At this point, the city and county of San Francisco did not have control over its own network,” he said.

If a problem arose, power was shut down, or data was corrupted, city services could be severely impacted, Del Rosario argued. Investigators from Cisco Systems were called in to try to get into the network, but “they were basically flying blind,” he said.

Officials became particularly concerned after finding a post-it note on Childs’ desk that said “power outage July 19,” Del Rosario said.

Childs finally agreed to give up the passwords to Newsom during a visit from the mayor to Childs’ jail cell on July 21. Newsom is expected to testify later on in the trial.

No city services were disrupted during the 12-day lockout, but according to Del Rosario, the city had to spend more than $1,750,000 trying to regain control of the network and doing vulnerability testing.

Shikman said today that Childs was the “most professionally skilled, most educated, most certified” network engineer the city had, and “was acutely sensitive to security interests.”

He also described him as ambitious, proud, extremely meticulous and “very passionate about his job.”

Shikman acknowledged that Childs could be impatient with people and “less than diplomatic” at times.

“He wasn’t a perfect individual, but he was dedicated to his profession, and he was dedicated to building out this FiberWAN,” he said.

Childs requested the task and “staked his reputation” on it, Shikman said.

Unlike his coworker assigned to assist him with the FiberWAN–to whom Childs also refused to give the passwords–Childs was a “workaholic,” spending nights and weekends studying it, Shikman said.

“Basically, Terry had no peers,” he said.

When his direct supervisor questioned him about security issues, Childs reportedly told him, “We can’t have this level of wide-open access,” according to Shikman.

Shikman said Childs was shocked to hear the supervisor reply, “Management does not care about security.”

“It really created a rift,” Shikman said.

“If something happened that was bad … it would be on Terry,” he said.

That tension combined with deadlines for the network implementation created a very stressful work environment for Childs, Shikman argued.

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.”

Shikman described workings at the Department of Technology as “dysfunctional.” He said the way they went about trying to retrieve the passwords from Childs was “unprofessional,” “clumsy” and “insensitive.”

“Little did they know, all they had to do was ask him in a secure, professional way,” said Shikman.

While the city “freaked out,” Shikman claimed, his client insisted that the passwords “be given to qualified people.”

Shikman called the case “overzealous prosecution.”

“There was no crime in this case, this was a rush to judgment,” he said.

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.

The prosecution began calling witnesses this afternoon. The trial is estimated to last until mid-March.

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