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Friday, August 6, 2010

Terry Childs, City's 'Rogue Techie,' Sentenced to Four Years

Posted By on Fri, Aug 6, 2010 at 5:10 PM

Terry Childs
  • Terry Childs
Terry Childs, the "rogue techie" who refused to disclose the passwords to a crucial city networking system for the better part of two weeks, has been sentenced to four years in state prison. He also may be stuck with up to $1.485 million in restitution payments.

Since Childs has been jailed since 2008, he may only spend an additional four to six months incarcerated, according to his attorney, Richard Shikman. This is the ostensible end of a situation which marked the closest a frustrated San Francisco employee has ever come to being equated with a James Bond villain. That comparison was made when Mayor Gavin Newsom himself was the man called in to eventually wrest the codes out of Childs in the engineer's jail cell.  

Those sorts of escapades -- and today's natural focus on Childs' punishment -- obscure a starker reality. The Terry Childs situation was an embarrassment for San Francisco and an indictment of how this city is run.

Essentially, Childs -- a talented engineer -- was given carte blanche to work as he saw fit. When he became worried that he wasn't as indispensable as he'd boasted, there was no one to stop him from writing numerous pitfalls into the system that only he could unravel. This should have been apparent to his higher-ups. But nothing was done to stop him until too late.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in labor and other costs were incurred after Childs locked the city out of its own system. But -- and this is the kicker -- this would have happened whether he petulantly refused to turn over the passwords or absent-mindedly walked in front of a Muni bus or left on an unscheduled vacation. Inexplicably, only Terry Childs had access to the city's Fiber-Wide Area Network (WAN) system. There was no backup.

This was the most mind-boggling thing of all to Jason Chilton, aka Juror No. 4. Chilton, like his peers, voted to convict Childs of breaking the state's hacking laws by "network tampering." Unlike his fellow jurors, however, Chilton is a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert who specializes in building Fiber-WAN systems -- virtually the exact job Childs held. "When they spent days and days in court talking about tech so the jurors could understand it, it was all old news to me," Chilton tells SF Weekly with a laugh. "I was ready to fall asleep at one point."

Chilton perked up, however, when prosecutors began explaining the security measures Childs put in place to protect the Fiber-WAN system, which handles payroll and other matters for numerous city departments. It soon became clear to the technologically fluent juror that these weren't meant to protect the system from outside interlopers but to secure Childs from forces within his own department.

"It almost seemed like paranoia. Especially after he found out there would be some organizational changes, I believe the security he was putting in place wasn't to prevent attackers but to prevent people from getting rid of him," says Chilton. "He would be needed because no one else could take care of this network. It was so secure, only he could have access."

Chilton, obviously, felt Childs clearly committed a crime in not surrendering the passwords. But he also blames bad management for allowing Childs to do what he pleased and continue to write layer after layer of security barriers into the Fiber-WAN system, even after higher-ups were hoping to ease him out.

"They could have had policies in place to prevent this," says Chilton. "The city had no formally adopted security policy. When you set up networks, you put in place some form of security. But with no policy in place, it really was at [Childs'] discretion. His boss knew he was the only one with security access for quite a while. The steps he took to change that weren't drastic enough."

Then, when management finally decided to deal with Childs, it did so in a way that allowed him weeks to write booby traps into the system prior to a July 9, 2008 meeting -- in fact, he was still writing changes into the system that morning. In an extraordinarily heavy-handed move, Childs walked into that meeting to be unexpectedly confronted by members of the San Francisco Police Department. This backfired, and triggered Childs' ill-conceived standoff.

"Management was just a huge problem," continues the juror. "After Terry was arrested, his manager is moved to another position, the security manager is moved around. It's kind of like shuffling a bad deck."

Childs, by the way, did great work for the city in Chilton's estimation. The Fiber-WAN system allows San Francisco to take advantage of its own fiber resources in the ground and not pay thousands of dollars a month in rent for multiple locations. But that wasn't the reason Childs was on trial. 

"As to the letter of the law -- he broke it," says the juror. "But the $5 million bail, the sitting in jail for a year and a half [leading up to the trial] -- being on that jury, you saw so many other people in the hallways of the courthouse that did some pretty bad things to other people. They're doing less jail time than Terry did. Much less."

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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