Hearing starts for SF network tamperer

December 15, 2008 10:22:48 PM PST
The opening of a preliminary hearing in San Francisco Superior Court today for a city worker jailed for allegedly tampering with the city's main computer network revealed a frictional relationship with supervisors that apparently devolved into the employee's eventual refusal to hand over passwords to the system.

Terry Childs, 44, of Pittsburg, was arrested in July and remains jailed on $5 million bail. He was placed on unpaid leave from the city's Department of Technology, formerly the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services, where he worked as a network engineer for five years.

San Francisco prosecutors have charged Childs with felony counts of computer network tampering, alleging that between June 20 and July 10, he had rigged the city's FiberWAN network -- which handles about 70 percent of the city's computer traffic, including some department services, e-mail and Internet access -- with his own passwords and had installed "traps" on the system that would have caused a full system failure if power were to be shut down.

Childs has pleaded not guilty to four counts of computer network tampering, as well as one count of causing losses of more than $200,000, resulting from the tampering. If convicted he could face up to seven years in prison.

Childs' attorney Richard Shikman has said that his client never intended to harm the system but acknowledged he may not have followed department protocols and "may have gone outside official channels" when he installed equipment on the network. Shikman insisted it was not done maliciously.

Childs' coworker Glacier Ybanez, another network engineer who worked with and was supervised by Childs on the development of the FiberWAN project, testified today in court that he and Childs "had a real good working relationship" but that he did witness Childs having angry run-ins with a client and another coworker on separate occasions.

Childs "just gets angry," Ybanez said, without elaborating about the encounters.

Childs listened attentively in court, frequently whispering to his attorney and jotting down notes.

Ybanez acknowledged that Childs possessed more technical expertise on the system than he did. He said that Childs was the only one in the department that had obtained an expert-level certification on the equipment for the FiberWAN network.

"Obviously, he brings in a lot -- higher-character technical skills," Ybanez said.

Ybanez also said that the managerial hierarchy at the department was sometimes unclear.

"At times, I was confused who my boss was," said Ybanez, adding that his own assignment to a separate project for the San Francisco Police Department after three months with FiberWAN project seemed like "a game" being played between Childs and Childs' immediate supervisor.

Ybanez characterized Childs' relationship with that supervisor as "not good."

Ybanez said that after he completed the five-month police project and assumed he would return to the FiberWAN project, Childs "mentioned that he's run into issues, and that he'd have to research it, differently."

Ybanez was mystified when Childs refused to let him return to the FiberWAN project, he said.

"He was reluctant to allow me back on, which kind of shocked me, in the beginning," Ybanez said.

"I recall him saying that management was on him," he said, adding that Childs said he felt that if Ybanez had access to the FiberWAN, he would too easily offer up information about the system to supervisors.

"You're too soft, you'll give it up if you have to," Ybanez recalled Childs saying to him. He added that the two often talked like this jokingly.

Ybanez remained unable to get high-level administrative access to the FiberWAN network and was never provided by Childs with a username or password for the system, even when other supervisors asked Ybanez to fix problems with it, he testified.

When Ybanez questioned Childs about what to tell other managers who asked him to help with troubleshooting, he said Childs told him, "Just tell them we have a procedure," and to call him, Ybanez said.

No other employees were given administrative access either, Ybanez said.

Ybanez said Childs told him he would eventually allow him administrative access, in order to train others on the system, when Childs had the whole network complete.

"But then a lot of things changed," Ybanez added. "He was having a lot of problems with his manager."

Ybanez said Childs had chafed at also being assigned to the San Francisco Police Department project, complaining that there was no project plan, no money and no equipment.

Childs "was pretty upset this was getting dumped on him," and refused to go to meetings on it, Ybanez said.

Ybanez recalled Childs complaining, "Every time we work on a project, we're required to have a project plan...we should be able to expect the same thing."

On July 9, Ybanez said, he heard department employees questioning Childs via conference call, "How do we get into the FiberWAN?"

Ybanez said that on the call he heard Childs respond that "he wasn't comfortable." Passwords that Childs eventually offered during the conversation did not work, he said.

On another occasion, Ybanez said he recalled department employees frantically trying to gain access.

"Everything was crazy. Everyone was running around, trying to get passwords," he said.

After his arrest on July 13, Childs eventually gave up the passwords, but prosecutors said they feared he could still tamper with the system.

The city said in September that the FiberWAN system passwords had been changed and the system did not appear to be vulnerable any longer as a result of the alleged tampering. The cost of the damage to the system was estimated at up to $1 million.

Childs' preliminary hearing continues Tuesday morning and is expected to last several days, with dozens of witnesses testifying. At the conclusion, a judge will decide whether there is reasonable cause for Childs to stand trial on any or all of the charges.


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