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The debate over distributed computing

A former computer administrator at DeKalb Technical College in Georgia could face up to 30 years in jail because he installed distributed computing software on the school's computers.

5 min read
David McOwen is losing a lot of sleep these days over his decision to participate in a distributed computing project two years ago.

The former computer administrator at DeKalb Technical College in Georgia found out recently that he could face up to 30 years in jail and fines totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars because he installed some distributed computing software on the school's computers.

McOwen, who describes himself as "a scientist at heart," said he just wanted to harness wasted computer power and donate it to a good cause.

"It's supposed to be for the good of technology, mankind and things like that," said McOwen, who now works at Cingular Wireless. "I don't feel I did anything criminal."

Although state officials have not yet charged McOwen with anything, they are investigating him for allegedly violating an agreement he signed saying he would not download unauthorized software onto school machines, use government property without permission, or do so for profit. What's more, according to McOwen, they've threatened to seat a grand jury and seek an indictment sometime in the coming weeks.

The Georgia Attorney General's office would not comment extensively on the case but did confirm an investigation into possible violations of the state's computer systems protection statute.

"The office of the Attorney General together with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation are currently investigating an alleged misuse of state government property by Mr. McOwen to determine whether or not a crime has occurred," said Russ Willard, a spokesman for Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker.

McOwen, 38, has posted details of the situation on his Web site, which also contains pictures of past holiday dinners and news about his wife's penchant for line dancing.

The case has sent a chill through the Web community. After all, system administrators and employees often install third-party software without permission--ranging from peer-to-peer programs such as Napster to instant messaging clients. The question the McOwen case raises is this: Can people go to jail for unauthorized installations of such programs?

The case also has attracted the attention of thousands of Netizens, who've blasted prosecutors on chat boards and donated to McOwen's defense fund. The Electronic Frontier Foundation also has offered to help. "This case, when we found out about it, certainly struck us as somewhat of a surprise," said Lee Tien, an EFF attorney. "One of the things we are very interested in is seeing the statute narrowed so it only covers people who are intending to do harm."

McOwen, who said he never intended to do anything malicious, finds it ironic that prosecutors are investigating him for participating in a distributed computing project when malevolent hackers, such as the distributors of the Sircam and Code Red worms, are causing real mischief across networks everywhere.

"I can't believe this nightmare's real," he said. "This whole thing is criminalizing the technology. It's not just criminalizing me."

The power of a supercomputer
Distributed computing projects take advantage of processors that are not otherwise being used by stringing them together in a virtual daisy chain to form a supercomputer--often for research purposes. The idea is to spread computations among millions of machines to cut costs and research time.

Perhaps the most popular of these is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI Institute, which has attracted millions of people. Distributed.net, the software McOwen installed, has been used on many college campuses, including the powerful machines in labs at the University of Texas. And United Devices has teamed with Intel on a distributed computing project to research cancer cures.

Back in 1999, McOwen decided to donate the downtime of a few hundred computers on the DeKalb campuses to a Distributed.net encryption research project that carried a $1,000 prize. While he was going around checking school machines for Y2K compliance, McOwen also downloaded the distributed computing program onto each computer. According to his attorney, David Joyner, much of the processing took place over the 1999 holiday break, while students were away. Joyner also refutes claims that McOwen did not have permission to install the software. A DeKalb college spokeswoman would not comment on the case.

McOwen said he was blindsided in February 2000 when school administrators confronted him with the installation and threatened criminal action. He said he didn't get the opportunity to uninstall the software. Instead, he resigned, thinking that was the end of it.

But a few weeks ago, McOwen said he was contacted by officials from the state of Georgia, who told him they had conducted an 18-month-long investigation and were preparing to charge him with counts related to violating the state's computer systems protection act as soon as early August.

Each charge carries a maximum of 15 years in jail and $50,000 in fines, and McOwen's attorney said he may face two counts: one of computer theft and another of computer trespassing. In addition, he could have to pay restitution equal to the amount of money paid to state workers hired to uninstall the programs from 500 PCs.

Distributed.net President David McNett said the punishment sounds severe, but he said that if McOwen didn't have permission to download programs, he shouldn't have participated in the project. "I certainly don't think 30 years in jail is appropriate, but I am equally uncomfortable by the unreasoned response in the Internet community in jumping to his defense," McNett said. "I don't think he's blameless."

McNett said he's somewhat worried the incident could cast a dark cloud over distributed computing projects, but he said that any technology could have caused problems. "Arguably, he could have gotten in trouble for installing IM or any other client he wasn't allowed to install," McNett said.

David Anderson, director of the SETI Project, said this is the first time he has heard of someone facing criminal charges for using work computers for such programs. "We've had a number of problems similar to this resolved in less litigious ways," he said. As a result, Anderson said SETI tries to make it clear in its user agreement that people must get permission from their employers before downloading the software.

The case has sparked an intense debate over whether schools and companies should allow distributed computing projects on their machines. Michael Covington, a University of Georgia computer science professor who wrote his school's acceptable-use policy, said the incident forced his team to clarify its position on distributed computing software. The outcome? "Unless we saw some kind of unacceptable load on the network, we would permit it," he said.

But like many people watching the case, Covington is waiting to hear more from all sides, including whether McOwen ever actually faces charges. Meanwhile, he worries that McOwen's characterizations might be giving the state a bad name.

"I'm concerned that the reputation is that we are the Beverly Hillbillies or something, and we're not," Covington said. "Georgia is not a technological or educational backwater. I know we have computer experts in the Attorney General's office."