By Brian Grow When David McOwen heard three years ago that Distributed.net was offering $1,000 to the first person who could crack the code in the company's encryption-research project, the systems administrator at Atlanta's DeKalb Technical College decided to give it a try. With special software he downloaded from Distributed.net, the 38-year-old New York native used the distributed-computing program to harness the unused processing power of 500 PCs he managed across the DeKalb campus -- in effect, creating a supercomputer on the cheap.
And while McOwen didn't win a cash prize, he achieved another goal: "I always want my computers to run efficiently," he says. At night and on weekends, idle DeKalb Tech computers would be made available to work on the giant scientific experiment.
But administrators at DeKalb Tech were hardly impressed by McOwen's feat. After getting tipped to his activities by another system administrator in February, 2000, school officials issued McOwen a stern letter threatening criminal charges while calling in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), the state version of the FBI. McOwen quickly resigned, hoping school officials would drop the issue. No such luck: After an 18-month review by the GBI, Georgia Attorney General Thurber E. Baker appears poised to convene a grand jury in coming weeks that could indict McOwen on charges of computer theft and trespassing.
"AGAINST THE WALL." If found guilty, McOwen could be facing up to 30 years in jail and more than $400,000 in fines and restitution. And while McOwen has relied on private donations to cover the $3,000 in legal fees he has incurred to date, he suffered a setback on Aug. 4, when his current employer, Cingular Wireless, fired him, citing the adverse publicity surrounding the case. For McOwen and his wife, "Right now, our backs are against the wall," he sighs.
While officials from DeKalb Tech and the Georgia Attorney General's office declined to comment on the McOwen affair, outside observers view the pending charges as another example of how government and corporations are cracking down on anything that they perceive as unauthorized use of their computer systems by employees. Richard Chambers, inspector general at the Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, declared in June that employee use of SETI@home -- a distributed program used to search for extra-terrestrial intelligence now found on 2 million PCs -- posed a risk to computer security. TVA authorities banned the software on company computers and removed it from 17 PCs already running it.
Many academics and IT professionals fear that these types of crackdowns threaten to stifle innovation, restricting the ability of researchers and even businesses to experiment with new technologies such as peer-to-peer networks. "We have been contacted by mathematicians and cryptographers who fear this case may take away a scientific resource for them," says Lee Tien, a lawyer with the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.
GEEKS RALLY. Indeed, since the success of music-sharing service Napster and other peer-to-peer software, top companies like Intel and Hewlett-Packard have leapt into the category -- and don't want any government roadblocks hindering new product development. "We think that Napster is only one of hopefully many thousands of applications [that will use] the peer-to-peer model. Therefore, we are advocates of peer-to-peer applications for both consumers and businesses -- and we advocate it without reservations," says Mike Leaffer, Intel's Peer-to-Peer Initiative Manager.
Many academics -- especially computer scientists, accustomed to liberal use of their PCs -- are particularly alarmed by the case. "If [McOwen's] motives are that he was trying to contribute to a scientific experiment, then at worst, he's guilty of bad judgment," says Amy Bruckman, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology's College of Computing. "I think that in a university environment, participating in a worldwide scientific experiment is a laudable goal." Bruckman says she has been bombarded with e-mail from fellow academics admonishing her for teaching at a state-run school and hence being associated with the state of Georgia.
McOwen is quickly becoming a martyr-figure for the academics and IT professionals who have rallied behind his cause. Chat rooms and message boards like Slashdot, Geekrights.org, and OpenP2P.com are full of incredulous commentary on the state's actions. And a group of supporters even launched FreeMcOwen.com to help raise awareness to McOwen's plight -- as well as legal funds.
"LITTLE SYMPATHY." Tien says the Electronic Frontier Foundation may file an amicus brief if McOwen is charged. He has reviewed the Georgia Computer Systems Protection Act, drafted in 1991 to combat computer crime such as document theft, and concludes the statute isn't applicable to distributed computing, which barely existed in the early 1990s. "This [law] strikes me as having been drafted in an unclear fashion, which leaves it open to be applied in unclear situations," he says.
To be sure, some say that the whole controversy could have been avoided if the administrator had simply received permission to install the distributed-computing software first. "Traditionally, it's very easy to get permission," says
David McNett, president of Distributed.net. He says he has "very little sympathy" for individuals like McOwen who play outside the lines, even though McNett contends such programs pose no threat to networks or individual PCs. He estimates that the stress on a PC running the company's software is no more than that of sending one e-mail per day.
Distributed.net's DNET and similar software have a growing network of fans who see the technology as a way to pursue ambitious research projects, without raising millions to purchase new supercomputers, by parceling out work to hundreds of idle machines. An Intel/United Devices Cancer Research Project, inspired by Intel founder Andy Grove's battle with colon cancer, now boasts roughly 800,000 computers in its network. Individuals volunteer their PCs to help process molecular research run by the Britain's University of Oxford and the National Foundation for Cancer Research.
SCAPEGOAT? Distributed.net 's McNett says he has 200,000 installed computers linked to his ongoing encryption project. "The many computers at DeKalb that are often idle represent a significant computing resource that could be used for the benefit of science, either in support of the work of some DeKalb faculty member or in support of a major international research project, such as FightAidsAtHome.
Too bad that wasn't done," says Dr. Ian Foster, a computer-science professor at the University of Chicago who is also co-leader of the Grid Physics Network (GriPhyN), another distributed-computing project. FightAidsAtHome was launched in late 2000 by Olson laboratory and Entropia, a software company, to model anti-HIV drugs, and it now boasts some 32,000 PCs linked to its system.
While McOwen has not officially been charged with a crime, the investigation centers on allegations that he violated an agreement banning downloads of unauthorized software onto school machines. McOwen's attorney, David Joyner, disputes the allegation that his client did not have permission to download the software. "That's a major point of contention. It'll come out in court," vows Joyner. He claims McOwen is being used as an example that the state can get tough on cybercrime.
ONGOING DILEMMA. Indeed, the DNET software that McOwen downloaded over Christmas break in 1998 was running for more than a year -- without problems, McOwen insists -- before being discovered by another system administrator. In February, 2000, McOwen says he received a letter from DeKalb officials that he would be prosecuted on criminal grounds for downloading DNET. "The letter said they would arrest me if I came near school," he adds. His legal counsel at the time advised him to resign. But it wasn't until this past July that McOwen knew that the GBI had been investigating the allegations.
For his part, McOwen denies he was compromising DeKalb Tech's system. "I am always looking for things to make machines run more efficiently. Distributed computing is just something I found in my research," he says. A former emcee and disk jockey, McOwen never got a college degree but had a knack for working with computers.
After moving to the Southeast in the early 1990s, he landed a post in 1995 at Hayes Microcomputer Products, which set the standard for modem communications but went out of business in 1998. His experience at Hayes landed him the job at DeKalb Tech. Their computers "were a mess before I got there, which is the main reason they brought me on board," he says.
The debate over such distributed-computing programs isn't likely to go away. The University of Chicago's Foster wonders how government and academic computer interests can come together: "The most interesting question to ask in this case is: How should Mr. McOwen and DeKalb have been working together, so that distributed-computing technologies could be applied in a beneficial fashion?" The answer may be crucial to the future of distributed computing. Grow is an editorial assistant in BusinessWeek's Atlanta bureau