Plea Agreement In Distributed Computing Case

Network administrator David McOwen faced 120 year sentence for installing clients without permission. He accepted a probation deal last week to 'stop this madness'

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 odyssey.

David McOwen had been facing up to 120 years in jail for downloading the Distributed.net 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 Distributed.net 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."

SUPPORTERS DONATED CYCLES.

  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 software.

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 Distributed.net 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, www.anandtech.com, 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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