More than two years after his arrest, a San Francisco judge today sentenced Terry Childs, a former city network engineer convicted of withholding passwords to the city’s main computer network he built, to four years in prison.
Childs, 45, of Pittsburg, will likely only serve another four to six months in custody, according to one of his attorneys, Valerio Romano, who argued today for his client to receive only probation.
City officials said after Childs’ arrest in July 2008 that they were worried their inability to access the FiberWAN network, which handled about 60 percent of the network traffic for city departments, would cripple the city if power were somehow shut off.
Romano today said that claim was completely overblown.
“All that really happened was, for 12 days…they didn’t have access to an administrator network,” Romano told Judge Teri Jackson.”
“Not one email was lost, not one piece of data,” he said.
Childs–who had a history of clashing with his superiors at the Department of Technology, as well as prior felony convictions for burglary and theft in the early 1980s–refused to hand over the passwords to the FiberWAN network at a meeting he was called to on July 9. He continued to do so even after a police inspector warned him his refusal was potentially criminal.
Romano called the meeting “an ambush.”
Childs was arrested a few days later. On July 21, Mayor Gavin
Newsom visited Childs in his jail cell and Childs agreed to give him the passwords.
The city regained control of the network, and no services were ever affected.
Prosecutors charged Childs with multiple counts of computer tampering-related crimes, all except one of which were later thrown out by another judge.
A jury convicted Childs on April 27 of this year of the one remaining charge, a denial-of-computer-service statute that Romano and Childs’ primary attorney, Richard Shikman, argued was designed to prosecute computer hacking. The jury also found true an allegation that damage from the crime exceeded $200,000.
Romano said that while Childs’ actions had been “misguided” and “a mistake,” he never intended to harm the network.
“He put the security of the network above his own well-being,” Romano said of Childs’ decision to go to jail rather than release the passwords to Department of Technology management he didn’t trust.
Romano said the case was all about “a personality conflict” between Childs and his superiors.
“The bottom line was, they couldn’t get into it if they wanted to,” Jackson interjected.
“There need to be procedures for giving over access to devices,” said Romano.
But prosecutor Conrad Del Rosario said there had been numerous opportunities for Childs to hand over the passwords in a more secure way, if that was his concern.
Del Rosario called the notion that Childs was just acting in the best interest of the FiberWAN network “disingenuous.”
“He had no problem using that as a pawn for whatever internal conflict he had with management,” said Del Rosario.
Del Rosario acknowledged that the Department of Technology had its problems.
“The people are by no means saying this was management at its peak performance,” he said.
Jackson noted the case, including the months-long trial, was extremely complicated. She agreed that “one can argue” that there had been “mismanagement” at the Department of Technology.
“Some say the city created Mr. Childs,” she said. “They knew what they had.”
However, Jackson emphasized, “A defense in a case is not to blame the victim.”
“This case…is about an individual who built the system, that he felt he owned,” Jackson said.
Childs had reportedly attempted to copyright the configurations to the FiberWAN, which as the builder he considered his own intellectual property.
“He felt that because of his blood, sweat and tears, this was his system,” said Jackson. “He was wrong. He was wrong, and the jurors found him to be wrong.”
Jackson said that because of Childs’ several prior convictions, and because of violating his “position of trust” as the only one in the department with the passwords, state prison was “appropriate.”
She sentenced Childs to the mid-term sentence of four years in state prison. Childs will receive credit for days served in jail and for good behavior.
A separate hearing on monetary restitution owed by Childs to the city is scheduled for Aug. 13. Prosecutors are asking for nearly $1.5 million.
District Attorney Kamala Harris attended today’s sentencing hearing, and after, said Jackson “absolutely made the right decision” to sentence Childs to prison.
Harris said Childs had “engaged in a real power-play” with the city of San Francisco and that his behavior “had the potential to turn the city upside-down.”
Romano disputed Harris’ characterization of the danger during those 12 days.
“Although numerous city departments were attached to the FiberWAN,” he said, “the worst that could have happened was a short outage in connectivity, similar to what any computer user experiences when their Internet service provider goes down.”
“This case was more like a political campaign, than a case,” Romano said.