Criminal Justice

Password-hoarding computer engineer was properly convicted, appeals court says


A California appeals court has upheld the conviction of a network engineer who withheld computer passwords after he was suspended from his job with the city of San Francisco, locking the city out of the system for 12 days.

Terry Childs was convicted in 2010 under a state law that makes it a crime to disrupt or deny computer services to an authorized user, report Forbes, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Appeal. He was sentenced to four years in prison and ordered to pay nearly $1.5 million in restitution.

In an Oct. 25 opinion, California’s First District Court of Appeal upheld the conviction and restitution order. Childs has already served the sentence, with credit for time served and good behavior, according to the Chronicle and Appeal.

Childs had set up the city’s new fiber-optic wide area network and gave only himself the password. When tech workers were notified about the possibility of layoffs, Childs was unconcerned, the opinion says. “They can‟t screw with me,” he told a co-worker. “I have the keys to the kingdom.” (Childs contended at trial that he was only joking that his job would be protected because of his superior skills.)

After Childs was placed on administrative leave, he refused to provide the password for 12 days. He had configured the system so that data would be erased if someone else tried to set a new password. In his defense at trial, he testified he acted as he did because he wanted to protect the security of the network.

Childs had contended the California law applied to hackers, rather than employees, but the appeals court disagreed.

The Forbes story, written by Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, sees a lesson in the opinion. “I imagine many IT employees and software engineers fantasize about how they will ‘stick it to the man’ through backdoors or password-hoarding if they are ever fired from their jobs,” Goldman writes. “Fantasies are fine, but actually implementing the plan could turn into a criminal nightmare.”

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Lawyer Arranges Mayoral Visit with Jailed Engineer, Gets Computers Working”

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