S.F. Techie Accused Of Holding Network Hostage

A computer engineer in San Francisco faces multiple charges for allegedly holding the city's computer network hostage. Jaxon Van Derbeken of the San Francisco Chronicle says Terry Childs is also accused of plotting to destroy the city's computer network.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

It took a secret jailhouse meeting between San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and a computer engineer charged with felony computer tampering to unlock the city's multi-million-dollar computer network. The computer engineer, Terry Childs, had built the network, and what no one realized was he was apparently the only administrator who could access it.

After Childs was confronted earlier this month for a pattern of hostile behavior, he refused to surrender the passwords and user IDs. He was arrested and for eight days, the computer system was in lockdown until that jailhouse meeting with the mayor. More on that in a moment.

It's a complicated story that Jaxon Vanderbeken has been covering for the San Francisco Chronicle. And Jaxon, what is on the San Francisco computer network?

BLOCK: Well, there's a variety of information. Everything from payroll records to e-mails to sensitive law enforcement data including the booking information of inmates and the county jail. It's all on a backbone-style system that he had the sole authority to enter.

BLOCK: And what is it the prosecutors are saying Terry Childs did that led to these charges against him, the felony charges of computer tampering?

BLOCK: Well, they said that he refused to give the user IDs and passwords to the system so other people could get into it to do administrative duties. He was told that he'd face arrest if he refused to. And he, nonetheless, told them that he wasn't going to provide the true user IDs and passwords to get in. He provided some. He claimed, among other things, that he himself had been locked out of administrative access to the system for some three weeks and that only after they prodded him did he provide some user IDs and passwords which turned out to be false. During this confrontation, he got up and essentially left. He was told he was suspended from work. And subsequently, police came to his home and arrested him.

BLOCK: Terry Childs was put in jail and stayed there for over a week. And finally, there's this secret meeting we mentioned with Mayor Gavin Newsom. What happened?

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Childs' attorney contacted the mayor and offered essentially to give him some information that would help the city regain control over its network. And the mayor went with one of his aides who happened to be his press spokesman. And they went and met Mr. Childs in custody at the Hall of Justice jail, and he gave over some information - prosecutors would say not all the needed information, but he gave over some information that helped them regain access to some of the systems that they could not access.

They say that not all the systems were contained in the user ID and password information that he provided. Mr. Childs had a lot of access and a lot of systems that he had his control over.

BLOCK: What have you learned about Terry Childs' background that would lead to where he is now, still in jail, charged with felony counts?

BLOCK: Well, prosecutors seem to suggest that his violent history including an aggravated robbery when he was 17 years old and a subsequent adult conviction in Kansas suggest that he may have been unstable. His family believes that he had learned by his mistakes and had set upon living a law-abiding life so much so that he was afraid to drive one mile over the speed limit. So there's obviously a very great disagreement there.

BLOCK: Did the city of San Francisco know about Terry Childs' criminal record when they hired him?

BLOCK: Well, there are some questions about that, some indication that he did say that he had been convicted of a felony, but perhaps, wasn't as complete on his application as otherwise he might have been. And also, when, in recent times, when authorities asked him about it, they claimed that he was obstructionist about answering questions about what happened back in Kansas when he was convicted of aggravated robbery.

BLOCK: What do you think the story tells us about the safety of computer networks, the control of computer networks?

BLOCK: Well, I think the fundamental message that one could take away from this is that, you know, authority needs to be shared. Just like when people operate nuclear technology, it requires at least a couple of keys to operate such technology, that definitely giving one person - for good or ill - total control has its pitfalls.

BLOCK: Jaxon Vanderbeken covers crime and courts for the San Francisco Chronicle. Thanks so much.

BLOCK: Thank you.

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