An Arizona school district information technology administrator is being investigated for misuse of campus computers because he installed and ran SETI software on up to 5,000 machines. The school district contends that this cost between “$1.2 and 1.6 million dollars over a 9 year period.” As I would have expected, quite a few people are giving that figure a wide-eyed look. SETI, a research project sponsored by some pretty big names (Sun Microsystems, Intel, and Fujitsu, to name a few), is intended to let ordinary computers search for extra-terrestrial life using already-existing idle time on computers all over the world. The tiny-footprinted program runs in the background on your PC and for the most part is unnoticeable, and rarely causes difficulty.
What strikes me odd about the story is not only that horrendously over-inflated “cost of operating” figure they are using to charge the man, but how the media is picking up on the SETI aspect of the story, without really telling the whole story. The IT Administrator, who has since resigned amid the probe, was warned several years ago about job performance that had nothing to do with SETI. And he was terminated (or resigned, depending on who you are talking to) for theft of equipment from campuses, abuse of purchasing oversight, not training his staff effectively, and downloading pornography. The use of SETI on campus equipment is a minor footnote compared to everything else that is coming out about this administrator and his activities on the campus.
But isn’t it much more fun for the media to sensationalize the somewhat marginal belief in UFO’s? The fact that he downloaded pornography, had no firewalls on the campus system, and spent the district’s money on unapproved hardware and software, is somehow not as prurient as his penchant for UFO hunting. I also find it ludicrous that the school district is claiming that over a million dollars was spent running SETI, rather than focusing on the real possibility that student and staff’s personal information was likely accessed because of the lack of security employed on the campus’s network by the administrator.
I’m not saying the guy didn’t show a distinct lack of judgment, I’m just not sure the SETI angle is all that important. It looks like they have much more to charge him with than that.