How could installing a screensaver be a crime against the state?

Published July 17, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

When David McOwen, a computer administrator at DeKalb Technical College in Georgia, installed a screensaver from an outfit known as Distributed.net on his school's computers in June 1999, he thought he was doing something that would make the world a better place. The Distributed.net screensaver is a prominent early example of what "distributed computing" systems can do, similar to the SETI@Home program that takes advantage of unused computer downtime to look for extraterrestrial radio signals that might finally prove the existence of life beyond Earth.)

Distributed computing cobbles together the collective unused resources of the Net's computers to replicate the power of a supercomputer by breaking up big problems into small pieces that individual personal computers can nibble on. In the case of the Distributed.net program, however, aliens weren't the quarry. Instead, it focused on solving complicated encryption problems -- whenever DeKalb's students weren't actively using the college's computers, the screensaver would kick in, contact the Distributed.net system and start cranking away.

McOwen had worked on the first versions of the pioneering Hayes modem and had also helped develop worldwide DSL (digital subscriber line) standards -- his geek credentials are beyond challenge. One definition of a true computer geek may be that he or she never wants to see a computer processor cycle go wasted, so McOwen was thrilled that the DeKalb computers could be useful even when students weren't pumping out term papers. At one point, the DeKalb network of hundreds of computers even reached No. 1 on the Distributed.net charts, meaning that he was contributing more computational power to the encryption challenge than anyone else in the world.

"I saw what the technology was about, and it was a good technology -- a new technology and a pioneering effort, and certainly not bad or criminal in any way," says McOwen, a soft-spoken man in his late 30s. "If Distributed.net is successful, it has worldwide implications."

But while McOwen may know his way around a computer network, he appears to have been less savvy about how to negotiate with the DeKalb bureaucracy. Because DeKalb's administrators didn't agree with McOwen's assessment of the wonders of distributed computing. Six months after the Distributed.net screensaver began quietly churning away on the DeKalb computers, McOwen was pulled into an office and handed a letter that said he was going to be facing criminal charges. According to McOwen, the DeKalb administrators were equating the screensaver with a hacking tool.

"I was never given a chance to just turn it off," says McOwen, who says the crackdown came from out of the blue. "I was never given an opportunity to explain what it was or how it worked ... It was just a blanket: boom, you're out of here."

In February 2000, at the college's request, McOwen resigned and went to work as a consultant, thinking that the affair was over. But in late June, the Georgia attorney general's office contacted McOwen to inform him that he should expect an indictment by the end of July. According to McOwen's lawyer, David Joyner, after spending 18 months researching the case the attorney general decided to convene a grand jury to see if McOwen should be charged with breaking a criminal statute that's typically used to combat computer hacking.

The penalty could be stiff: McOwen could face 15 years in prison, plus a fine of more than $415,000 -- calculated on the basis of charges for "$.59 per second" for use of 500 computers, including the cost of bandwidth, backbone, networking and frame relay.

Russ Willard, spokesperson for the attorney general's office, says, "We are currently investigating an allegation of misuse of state government property; I really can't comment."

"Apparently, they felt that [McOwen] didn't have the authority to download the program, even though it didn't adversely affect the computer system," says Joyner.

The programming community that follows distributed computing developments is, not surprisingly, up in arms. In early July McOwen sent out a mass e-mail begging for legal advice; he immediately received thousands of responses, including a story on the news site OpenP2P. A group of concerned software programmers started a legal fund for McOwen that so far has collected more than $1,200; McOwen says he's heard from the chief technologist at the FCC as well as from congressional staffers. "The outpouring has just been incredible," he says, gratefully.

The case may be attracting such attention because geek idealists see distributed computing as one answer to a host of intractable problems. Distributing computing systems have been aimed at problems as varied as finding cures for cancer or AIDS or predicting worldwide climate changes. If McOwen is found guilty, the negative publicity for distributed computing might discourage other universities and large institutions from lending their computer networks to the cause.

Or perhaps it's simply that the restitution charges don't seem to make sense: $.59 per second? Distributed.net staffers did not respond to a request for comment (according to McOwen, they have been subpoenaed for the case), but Dan Wertheimer, who founded SETI@Home, says that distributed computing applications typically don't use much bandwidth, since the screensavers connect to the Internet for merely a second or two every few days. "The costs are minuscule," says Wertheimer. "And it doesn't use much computer time -- it's a screensaver. It's hard to imagine this would hurt the school system."

There have been cases in the past of institutions that disapproved of distributed computing, but never because of the costs of the program. According to Wertheimer, some companies have expressly asked their employees not to install SETI@Home, not because it interfered with the network but "because they don't want outside code on their computers based on security concerns." But other companies, such as Sun Microsystem, have avidly embraced distributed computing and happily donate their entire networks to the cause.

McOwen and his attorney hope the promised indictment will never arrive; it remains to be seen what the final charges against him will be. Meanwhile, McOwen continues to ponder what, exactly, he did wrong. He worries that the future of the entire Distributed.net project is at stake simply because he thought that DeKalb's computers might be useful for solving collective problems. "If it's so damaging to them, then it must be damaging to the rest of the world, too," he says, wryly.

As Joyner puts it, "I've had a lot of criminal cases, and there's always an alleged victim in a criminal case. But where's the victim here?"

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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