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Another Point of View on That Whole "Rogue San Francisco Admin" Story

Date/Time Permalink: 07/19/08 06:50:19 pm
Category: General

So, let me get this straight. There's this system admin who allegedly "hijacked" San Francisco's city-wide computer network. To the point where he got fired, arrested, and is now on trial. Half the stories out there have this guy tried and convicted. Because, you know, people who work in computers are so freaking scary.

Every charge against him that I've heard so far is "maybe" this and "we suspect" that. So far, the only hard evidence that he did anything is: he changed passwords on routers. No kidding? If I'm responsible for a whole major city's computer security, I'm going to change passwords, too! Maybe he should give his boss the new passwords, and maybe he shouldn't. Remember, we're always hearing about how stolen laptops compromise whole IT infrastructures - the government is no exception.

All I'd like to see is a chance for Terry Childs to speak for himself, to see if we have an explanation for this. Until I do, I'm inclined to think they arrested the wrong party. Especially after I have read this behind-the-scenes view of the whole story, so rarely afforded us in high-profile cases these days.

One huddle of Slashdot commenters finally sniffed out the root of the matter. When somebody expressed disbelief that a lone admin could be shouldered with the entire network for five years, with nobody knowing or caring how or what happened under their nose, another asked "You've never worked for the government, have you?"

Well, I have. For the state of California, in fact. In that and, even more so, other technical jobs for large corporations, I can relate and identify. Let me explain to you folks who have never had to suffer through the experience of working an IT career just what is going on between management and engineering.

If you work in computers, and you have a manager who doesn't, then to that manager you are dirt. You get paid on the same scale as the maintenance staff. You get the bare minimum of company perks they can get away with giving you. Basically, you are a plumber. You keep the data moving through the pipes - that's all they want to see. You literally never see anyone but your immediate supervisor for years unless something like a blackout happens, and then they just show up to chew you out for whatever wasn't your fault. The way management treats you, you're so much like a plumber that they avoid you like you just got through unclogging a sewer line.

The arrogance is 100% on the part of management. Everything from them to you is "Just shut up and do it!" Ask for more staff? Upgrade your equipment? Need more time to finish this repair? Allocate more resources for your project? You'll be blown off. Don't bother that expensive suit on its way out the door with a bag of golf clubs on a Wednesday morning - you can be replaced by some outsourced foreign temps, you know! After all, you're just a data plumber!

So, it's very easy to believe that for five years, one guy proved himself competent enough that he was able to keep the entire information infrastructure for a city going, and the city exploited him. I'll bet it wasn't like that at first. I'll bet there were layoffs. California is famous for budget crises, after all. I'll bet over time, one Big Honcho after another said, "Well, we don't need to keep these other people on - we've got Terry!" And they grin and slash the budget. Perhaps management dropped by the server room once a year - where they stick their head in the door, go "How's it goin', Terry?" with a big golf-tanned grin and then dust off before he has a chance to ask where that new monitor is which he requisitioned eight months ago.

Come on, I know I'm not the only one who's experienced this environment! Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, has all of those readers who can top his most satirical cartoons with real life examples. I know they don't just come out of thin air.

And the stories says the "rogue sysadmin" had to deal with a lot of office politics, and this reflects poorly on his attitude - where isn't there office politics? Anybody? Because though I've worked for companies with as little as ten people, there were always office politics. If I hadn't watched my tail and known what to kiss and when when I worked in cubicle-land, this could have been my story as easily as it could Mr. Child's.

And finally, he got kicked out over a tussle with newly hired security personnel. That just goes to show, if you work in IT, everybody but the wino behind the dumpster out back gets to bully you around. So far, this is all we have. For all we know, he was picked off in an office spat, then the brass hurried to cover their butts by claiming that he did all these alleged crimes. I've seen it before, and I'll see it again.

Because, you know, people who work in computers are so freaking scary.

Captain Comic to the rescue!

UPDATE: A whole lot more smoke has been cleared here, with very diligent work from Paul Venezia of InfoWorld.

UPDATE 9/12/08: Ars Technica is following updates to the story, which has gotten even more bizarre. Like many others, Joel Hruska is also starting to smell a lot of rats in this case, and none of the rats are named "Childs".

My interest in this case is that the outcome could become a touchstone for the future of IT worker's rights. IT specialists put up with tremendous abuse in the workplace; they are regarded with suspicion in everything they do, subjected to paranoid regulations, are derided as freaks who don't belong in the company no matter how essential a function they perform, and are paid degraded wages and forced to work like slaves to boot.

For every one of us who has been suspected of being "a hacker" because we knew how to code, who has been held up at a border or a terminal because we had a laptop with tools on it, who has been questioned by their ISP because they ran legal programs, who has been harassed by school officials because they explored an open file system... Childs is our kin.

Guilty of being smart, nothing more. Yet another witch burned by the superstitious mob, which fears the very technology they insist on using anyway.

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