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28 April 2010, 17:44

San Francisco's "network kidnapper" found guilty

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San Francisco Seal On Tuesday, the network administrator who, in the summer of 2008, made headlines worldwide for manipulating central components of the city's communications network so that only he had access, was found guilty. After four months of proceedings, which included testimony from the city's mayor Gavin Newsom, the jury at the Superior Court of California concluded that the IT expert's actions did indeed constitute a crime. Terry Childs now faces up to five years in jail because the damage he caused exceeds $200,000.

However, it's unlikely that he will serve the maximum sentence. According to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle (SFC), Judge Teri Jackson is instead expected, on June the 14th, to hand down a sentence of no more than a few months, in addition to the two years that the 45-year-old has already spent in custody. Members of the jury also spoke with the SFC about their serious concerns regarding San Francisco's city administration. The newspaper quotes one of the jury members as saying "Management did everything they possibly could wrong. I think that if they put the city on trial, they would be guilty, too". They added that the jury had "a lot of sympathy" for Childs.

At the Department of Telecommunication Information Services (DTIS, now the Department of Technology), Childs played a major role in the development of San Francisco's fibre-optics network that went into operation a few years ago; it handles some 60% of city officials' data traffic. After some disputes with superiors and, according to state prosecutors, a threat of being laid off, the network specialist added a master password that only he knew, to control access to crucial hardware components. When the situation escalated, he refused to divulge the password because, as he put it, he had to protect the system from incompetent employees.

The DTIS then called the police, who arrested the network administrator. In jail, Childs was initially completely tight-lipped, leaving specialists from Cisco Systems in the dark for a week as they feverishly – and unsuccessfully – tried to get administrative access to the city's network. The situation did not calm down until San Francisco's mayor accepted Childs' invitation to speak with him personally in jail. At the end of the talk, Newsom received a slip of paper with the password on it. In court, Newsom said the city had been "in danger" because there was no access to wage accounts and to some police data.

Childs' attorney admitted that his client may have been a bit "paranoid" about protecting his "kingdom" and "undiplomatic" in dealing with his superiors, but nothing worse. His lawyer said that Childs initially refused to hand over the passwords because his bosses were asking him to do so over an unsecure phone line. State prosecutors said that Childs, who had a criminal record and had spent four years in jail for robbery, simply wanted to draw attention to himself to show who was really the boss.


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