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Update: A city locked out of its own data network

By / July 23, 2008

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom

Kimberly White/Reuters/file

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Another plot twist develops in San Francisco’s bizarre, modern struggle between city officials and a disgruntled computer engineer thrown in jail for withholding computer access codes. A story already reminiscent of "Office Space" and "Die Hard 4" now involves a secret meeting between the accused programmer and the charismatic mayor in the Hall of Justice jailhouse.

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Today the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the imprisoned Terry Childs surrendered the password to Mayor Gavin Newsom, allowing San Francisco to regain control of the computer network that manages 60 percent of the city’s information.

The visit was so secret that the mayor did not tell District Attorney Kamala Harris' office or police about it. Newsom decided on his own to accept Crane's invitation, mayoral spokesman Nathan Ballard said…. Newsom "figured it was worth a shot, because although Childs is not a Boy Scout, he's not Al Capone either," Ballard said.

The visit led to another Hollywood-esque wrinkle. The codes didn’t immediately work. Newsom, who’s easily attractive enough to star in a summer blockbuster, placed another call to Childs’s lawyer. He elaborated on how the code works and brought the plotline to a close.

But it wasn’t a happy ending for Childs. Wired speculates that the programmer agreed to release the passwords in hopes it would convince a judge to reduce his $5 million bail. That amount is “five times higher than most murder defendants',” writes Wired, “because the authorities feared that, if released, he might permanently lock the system and erase records.”

The gesture didn’t work. The judge refused to budge on the bail amount today.

Not to have too much movie-magic fun with this story, the event represents the scary realization of something fiction writers have warned of for a long time. The whole problem arose because Mr. Childs didn’t trust the safety of the city network in the hands of anyone but himself, says Eric Crane, Childs's attorney.

"Mr. Childs had good reason to be protective of the password," Crane said. "His co-workers and supervisors had in the past maliciously damaged the system themselves, hindered his ability to maintain it ... and shown complete indifference to maintaining it themselves.
"He was the only person in that department capable of running that system," Crane said. "There have been no established policies in place to even dictate who would be the appropriate person to hand over the password to."

For the Monitor's full account of the events that led up to today's news, check out: A city locked out of its own data network

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