Slouching toward justice for Terry Childs

Gavin Newsom testifies as the Terry Childs trial enters its second agonizing month

The Terry Childs trial has dragged on for eight weeks now, and the defense hasn't even started presenting its case. I'm nowhere near the courtroom -- I'm on the other side of the country, in fact -- but I've talked to several folks who were there. Each one volunteered that jurors seemed bored to tears; some in the jury box may even have been sleeping. Seems my comments last year about the potential problems of seating a jury for this trial had some foundation after all.

But last week the action picked up a bit. San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom testified, and while he may no longer be running for California governor, he still has sufficient star power to thrill a crowd. If you recall, Childs refused to divulge the passwords to the city's network to a group of random city employees, was subsequently arrested, and then stated that he'd only give that information to the nominal owner of the network, the mayor. So Newsom, Starbucks cup in hand, took the stand.

[ InfoWorld Contributing Editor Paul Venezia has led the way in reporting the bizarre case of Terry Childs. Consult our InfoWorld special report for a complete index of that coverage. ]

The San Francisco Chronicle posted a breathless piece reporting on the mayor's testimony that reads more like a gossip column than a news story. It was very clear that the mayor was the center of attention, not the case or the defendant.

What's curious about that article, however, are the comments. They seem to be running about 10-to-1 in Childs' favor. Who knows the demographic represented, but if those commenters are mostly non-techies, then it would seem public opinion of this case has tilted in favor of the defense. Maybe that's an indicator of the outcome; maybe not.

A few items in that article did catch my eye, however. The first was that the password Childs used for the FiberWAN was 28 characters long. That's nearly the length of an MD5 hash. To illustrate, bf7d87e2b048cc615107b193eab is a 28-character string. That's a hugely secure password and very much in line with the idea that Childs was intensely concerned with network security, which is the primary reason he's in this predicament in the first place.

The second item that I noticed was that Newsom didn't bring any technical people with him to the meeting with Childs in the summer of 2008. He brought his press secretary. Other than Childs, there were no technical people. Many articles about this case have pounced on the fact that after Childs gave the passwords to the mayor, they couldn't immediately be used, and more information had to be provided to access the core routers and switches. Most of these pieces chalk this up to some kind of secondary infraction on Childs' part, in which he didn't really give up the required information at first.

If a technical person had been with the mayor, however, I'm willing to bet this confusion would never have arisen. Just because you give someone a password doesn't mean that person knows how to use it. Childs' security measures would have included access lists that blocked attempted logins from non-specified IP addresses or subnets. In short, it was nothing out of the ordinary if you know anything about network security.

The third thing that stood out was a comment made by Newsom on the stand:

Shikman said Childs' actions had caused concern among officials, but no actual problems.

"Nothing had actually gone down," the attorney said to Newsom. "Is that fair to say?"

"The only thing that went down," Newsom countered, "was our balance sheet, because of the costs associated with this."

This is disingenuous at best -- and basically immaterial. The City certainly did shell out plenty of money dealing with this problem, but that wasn't really Childs' fault.

If he'd been hit by a bus, the city would've spent the same, if not more. If he'd been fired or quit, the same thing would have happened. The balance sheet has indeed suffered, but that's mostly due to the ineptitude of the San Francisco government. Most of that money didn't need to be spent on "fixing" the problem or on prosecuting this case. If the city IT department had any idea what it was doing, this entire situation wouldn't have cost a dime. They forced the issue, raised the stakes to the stratosphere, and are now trying to pin the ramifications of their own actions on Childs. If an organization fires someone, is the person being fired liable for the costs incurred by the company to find and train that person's replacement?

Only time will tell how this expensive, narcolepsy-inducting trial will end. If it drags on into summer, Childs will have the dubious honor of being held in jail for two full years. That's two years of the city of San Francisco pouring money down the drain, prosecuting the man they once trusted implicitly and unequivocally -- a man who ultimately protected their network until the bitter end.

This story, "Slouching toward justice for Terry Childs," was originally published at Read more of Paul Venezia's Deep End blog.


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