Does "Monitoring the System" Mean Checking Our Mental Health?

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The breakdown of San Francisco's network administrator Terry Childs serves as a warning sign to us all.


Reading about the fall of network administrator Terry Childs in San Francisco sends a chill down my spine.


Childs currently is in jail on $5 million bond for commandeering the city's FiberWAN fiber optic network. The network carries most of the city's network traffic, including employee emails, personnel information, and even law enforcement documents. Childs finally gave up the passwords following a visit to his cell last week by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.


Apparently, Childs was in the process of being disciplined about his work performance when he gained access to the network and began tracking correspondence between his supervisor and other workers regarding his personnel issues. Tipped off to what appeared to be an impending dismissal, Childs locked everyone out of the network and refused to give up the passwords to the Cisco routers and switches.


The outcome doesn't look promising for the 43-year-old employee of the city's Department of Technology, who has held his job for five years. Officials were so worried about his commandeering the network he helped design that they feared he might have enabled someone else to access the system remotely and start a mass destruction of city documents. No evidence to support that concern has surfaced, despite a search of Childs' home. He is now facing four counts of computer tampering and, unless his bail is reduced, will likely be in jail for some time.


What appears to have happened to Childs is the IT equivalent of "going postal." Who knows what was going through his mind, but one commentator said that while "this is certainly horrible for the city, I'm sure many network admins have thought of doing the same thing to their organizations." Well, as my late, dear, departed mother explained to me when I was a boy, "Everyone thinks about doing awful things, but actually doing them is the determinant of whether or not you're actually crazy."


The scary thing about the Childs incident for me is not the fear that someone else will do something similar with, perhaps, a network that is even more critical than San Francisco's city infrastructure, but that each of us is capable of cracking under the strains of an increasingly complex and automated world and causing harm to others. I have to hand it to Mayor Newsom, who put Childs' situation into perspective when he said that, "although Childs is not a Boy Scout, he's not Al Capone either." The mayor showed compassion toward Childs and dealt with the situation on a human level, an approach that apparently worked.


The mind is a fragile thing, and any number of psychological as well as physiological irregularities can crop up during the course of one's life. The woman who died recently in the emergency room of Kings County Hospital Center (Brooklyn's largest psychiatric hospital), 49-year-old Esmin Elizabeth Green, was found to have blood clots in her brain that were causing or exacerbating irrational behavior. She didn't hurt anyone, but she clearly had mental problems before they carried her by ambulance to the hospital.


Do any of us know where that point is when we will snap? The alarming suicide rate today among servicemen indicates that people will fall off the edge of sanity before anyone around them knows what's happening. Do the individuals involved even know that their behavior is "crazy"? I'm not a psychologist, but I fear that forces can build up in our subconscious minds and suddenly erupt in irrational behavior.


What is the relation to Information Technology? We're all under a lot of pressure to perform (nights, weekends--it doesn't matter), we have limited resources, and we're generally under-appreciated. That is a formula for breakdown. We need to balance the load and monitor the system.


Here are the warning signs (for an adult) of mental illness:


•·        Marked personality change

•·        Inability to cope with problems and daily activities

•·        Strange or grandiose ideas

•·        Excessive anxieties

•·        Prolonged depression and apathy

•·        Marked changes in eating or sleeping patterns

•·        Extreme highs and lows

•·        Abuse of alcohol or drugs

•·        Excessive anger, hostility, or violent behavior


If you notice any of these in yourself or a coworker, you might consider speaking to your supervisor. Compassionate intervention could keep someone from throwing away his or her career--as in Terry Childs' case--and possibly even save a life.