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Plea Agreement In Distributed Computing Case

A Georgia man who was accused of computer

theft and trespass after installing a distributed computing client at work,

has accepted a plea agreement that will bring an end to his two-year legal


David McOwen had been facing up to 120 years in jail for downloading the client while working as a computer technician for the

state-run DeKalb Technical College.

Under the terms of the deal offered by the Georgia attorney general's

office, McOwen will be required to make restitution of $2,100 to cover the

cost of removing the clients, and perform 80 hours of community service

unrelated to computers or technology. He also receives one year of probation

for each criminal count, which will run concurrently. McOwen will have no

felony or misdemeanor record under Georgia's First Offender Act.

McOwen loaded the client on the college's machines and

donated their unused computing power to the RC5-64 code breaking challenge.

Prosecutors alleged that McOwen stood to gain financially from his actions

and implied that the client may have created security holes.

McOwen denied these allegations, but acknowledged in an interview with

SecurityFocus that the plea agreement gave him a chance to avoid the risk of

a trial, while halting a dispute that's already put him thousands of dollars

in debt.

"Anything can happen with juries of lay people," said McOwen. "And it would

also cost tens of thousands of dollars that we don't have to try the case...

It was also a face saving maneuver on the part of the state. It is obvious

that they did not want to go to trial."


Since February 2000, McOwen has been under investigation by Georgia state

prosecutors who initially sought more than $415,000 in restitution for

bandwidth charges calculated at 59 cents worth of bandwidth per second. The

state later backed away from the $415,000 figure but McOwen lost two jobs as

a result of the investigation.

McOwen was finally charged last October with eight violations of Georgia's

computer crime law: one count of computer theft, and seven counts of

computer trespass. Each felony count carried a $50,000 fine and a 15-year

possible prison term, in the first case in which state prosecutors used an

anti-hacking law to punish unauthorized downloading of third party


Senior staff attorney Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)

believes McOwen would likely have won if the case had gone to trial. Much of

the case rested on whether McOwen had fair notice that installing client software was prohibited. Prosecutors insisted that

McOwen had violated a written agreement not to download third party software

without authorization, but never produced the written policy. Prosecutors

could not be reached for comment Friday.

Tien says that the Georgia legislature should take a look at its computer

crime statue and curtail its language so that it cannot be used to prosecute

cases like McOwen's.

"They wouldn't have put forward this kind of deal unless they either

believed their case was weak, or there were no damages to support it," said

Tien. "But you don't want to go through this process of losing your job,

being attacked in the press and being in legal limbo, so you should get

permission before installing distributed clients. I can only hope that

companies and administrators set clear guidelines."

McOwen's case outraged supporters of distributed computing projects and

became a worldwide cause. One group of supporters on the Anandtech Forums,, recently auctioned seven days of 150 gigahertz in donated

computing power, raising $2,175 for McOwen's legal expenses. McOwen believes

that the outspoken condemnation of the charges against him prompted the

prosecutors to back down.

"This has brought out the most important feature of distributed computing

which is not coming together and combining the power of machines, it is

coming together and combining the power of people," said McOwen. "This

shows that it is possible to stop this madness." By Ann Harrison

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