Mayor gives details of jail visit with ex-city engineer 

Mayor Gavin Newsom said he had “grave concerns” that The City’s main computer network would be hacked or destroyed when he made the unusual decision to visit County Jail to see the man accused of holding the network hostage in 2008.

In rare testimony for any sitting mayor in a criminal trial Tuesday, Newsom gave his account of a jailhouse encounter with Terry Childs, who could land in prison for five years on charges of computer tampering.

Newsom said he listened to Childs for about 15 to 20 minutes during the July 21, 2008, visit, accompanied by the mayor’s former press secretary Nathan Ballard and Childs’ attorney at the time, Erin Crane. According to Newsom, Childs told him he was concerned about the management of San Francisco’s technology and asked the mayor not to give the password to city staffers, but instead to Cisco Systems code crackers who were hired by The City.

“I had a singular purpose, and that was to walk out with the password,” Newsom said.

But the mayor testified that Childs did not immediately give away the 28-character code for the FiberWAN system — which handled The City’s payroll, e-mail and other vital functions — to a roomful of city staffers and Cisco Systems code crackers until he was assured that the password could be tested offline.

Then, Newsom said, he defied Childs’ one wish and read the password aloud to the room. When the password Childs provided didn’t work, Department of Technology head Chris Vein called Newsom to give him the news. 

“I was furious, but I didn’t fly off the handle,” Newsom said. During the next few hours, Childs’ attorney provided protocol instructions that finally enabled access back into the system, Newsom said.

The network was never compromised, but the cost of Childs’ actions was enough to warrant prosecution, Newsom said. The total cost to bring in a team of code crackers from Cisco Systems and to pay the overtime for a number city workers is estimated at more than $1.75 million.

“The only thing that went down was our balance sheet, because of the costs,” Newsom said.

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Brent Begin

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