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Jailed City Worker Allegedly Hijacks San Francisco's Computer System

The computer network administrator has been charged with computer tampering for allegedly creating a password that gave him exclusive access to the city's new wide area network.
A disgruntled computer engineer is accused of sabotaging San Francisco's multimillion-dollar computer system, which stores city records such as e-mails, payroll files, and law enforcement documents.

Terry Childs, 43, of Pittsburg, Calif., was being held Tuesday on $5 million bail. The computer network administrator has been charged with four counts of computer tampering, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Childs, who works in the city Department of Technology, allegedly created a password that gave him exclusive access to the city's new FiberWAN (wide area network), authorities told the newspaper. He has refused to divulge the password, leaving other system administrators locked out.

Undoing Childs' alleged tampering could cost millions of dollars, city officials said. In the meantime, the system is operating, even though administrators have limited or no access.

Childs, who has worked for the city for about five years, had been disciplined in recent months for poor job performance, and supervisors had tried to fire him, the newspaper reported.

"They weren't able to do it -- this was kind of his insurance policy," an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told the newspaper. Childs allegedly began tampering with the computer system June 20, building a tracing system to monitor what other administrators were saying or doing about his personnel case.

Following Childs' arrest, authorities searched his home and car, fearing that he may have arranged for a third party to access the system by telephone or other electronic device to destroy sensitive city documents, the Chronicle said. No such device or evidence of such an arrangement was found.

Childs' base pay in 2007 was $126,735. He earned an additional $22,534 for being on-call as a troubleshooter, the newspaper said.

Security officials often warn organizations that employees are at least as big a threat to computer systems as outside hackers. Nevertheless, the 2008 InformationWeek Strategic Security Study found that 21% of companies never conduct security risk assessments and, of those that do, just one in five impose the rigor of using a specialized external auditor.

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Kelly Jackson Higgins, Executive Editor
Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer