Questions swirling over Higley computer woes - East Valley Tribune: News

Questions swirling over Higley computer woes

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Posted: Monday, December 7, 2009 1:57 pm | Updated: 3:10 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

A popular computer software program that aids in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and was downloaded throughout the Higley Unified School District has raised many questions about what the program is, how much power it uses, what it takes to uninstall and how much it will cost the district.

A former Higley information technology director and network systems manager, Brad Niesluchowski, is accused of downloading the unauthorized software in February 2000, a month after he started working in the district.

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Niesluchowski lost his job in October and is under police investigation. He is accused of taking school computers and other equipment home, downloading pornography, not doing his job correctly and installing unauthorized software, said Superintendent Denise Birdwell.

Brad Niesluchowski

Niesluchowski had been told previously by former superintendent Joyce Lutrey to remove the software, but he never did, Birdwell said.

In an e-mail statement sent Thursday, Niesluchowski disputed the claims made by the district, saying he was targeted by Birdwell because of a "personal vendetta."

He said he disabled the SETI@home program "long ago" and "another employee inadvertently copied that program onto an image that was then copied onto other district computers." However, he stressed in the e-mail that "the SETI program did not harm anyone or waste money."

Niesluchowski also maintains that since he was demoted last year and was no longer in charge of the department, he should not be held accountable for many of the accusations.

The estimated dollar amount to fix all of the issues is unknown but estimated at $1.2 million to $1.6 million. On Thursday, Birdwell said the actual cost of removing the SETI@home software is about $5,000.

A Gilbert police report involving the investigation is still not available.

EXTRATERRESTRIAL SEARCH

The software Niesluchowski is accused of downloading is called SETI@home. The software is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers to analyze radio telescope data in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which is what SETI stands for.

SETI@home involves millions of home users from around the world in research conducted by the University of California-Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory. Data is recorded at the world's largest telescope, Arecibo, in Puerto Rico, a telescope that is 1,000 feet in diameter.

That data is broken up into "little pieces, and all the volunteers who have downloaded the software get the pieces," said Dan Werthimer, chief scientist of SETI@home.

"When those people are not using the computer, the screen saver pops us, and your computer goes to work hunting for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations," said Werthimer, who spoke by phone to the East Valley Tribune. "If you want to do a powerful search, you need a lot of computer power. SETI@home volunteers have built our planet's most powerful supercomputer. We couldn't afford to do this search ourselves."

Werthimer said the program "doesn't take much additional power" when the computer is in normal use, but he tells volunteers not to leave their computers on "just for us."

"It pops a screen-saver program up when (the computer) is not in use," said Werthimer, adding that the screen saver pops up in a set amount of time based on that computer's setting. "The idea is to use the spare computing cycle. Most computers are in use 10 percent of the time. There is a lot of extra power usually not being used, and that's what we're using for SETI@home."

Niesluchowski removed the "shutdown option" from district computers, Birdwell said.

Birdwell said the SETI@home software bogged down the district's system, interfered with teachers' technology use in the classroom and used unnecessary electricity. To find out what the problem was, Higley officials hired five technology experts to investigate. One of the technology companies, Todotech, put together a districtwide technology audit that cost $15,000.

According to Eric Korpela, a project developer and project scientist with SETI@home, the software should not cause any slowdowns if BOINC is "configured not to run applications while the computer is in use." BOINC replaced the original program several years ago.

"If there's one thing IT personnel like, it's blaming slow computers on viruses, spyware, or 'too much stuff on the hard disk,'" said Korpela in a message board discussing the Higley story. "That might be the case, but those are just a case of poor computer maintenance by the IT personnel, which is the most common cause of slow school or work computers."

The software, which is typically downloaded on a home computer, uses part of the computer's central processing unit power, disk space and network bandwidth. Basically, whenever teachers or district employees weren't using their computers, the software kicked into gear and used the computers' power, space and bandwidth for its research.

DOWNLOADING TROUBLE

Birdwell said there is no record for SETI@home or BOINC downloads being approved by the district.

"Additionally, there are policies and statutes prohibiting the use of public resources for private benefit and a policy stipulating that the district shall incur no expense as the result of an unapproved employee action," Birdwell said in a statement.

According to the rules and policies on the SETI@home Web site, users should only run the software on computers they own or they have received the owner's permission to use.

Uninstalling the program takes less than a couple of minutes and is as easy as uninstalling any other computer software, Werthimer said.

The computer user can either click on the SETI@home screen saver and choose an ordinary screen saver, or go through the typical process of uninstalling the software, which takes a "few clicks," he said.

"If you were there and you knew what you were doing, it would only take a couple of minutes per computer," Werthimer said.

Birdwell said the program is not "easy to remove" and will take several months to uninstall.

She said there was no "uninstall" included with the original version of SETI@home; the BOINC program does come with an uninstaller.

"However, an inspection of your computer after you run that uninstaller will reveal that the uninstall program does not remove the registry keys (and there are about 900 of them), and also does not remove the application data which is stored in the 'All users' profile," Birdwell said in a statement. "So it is a more labor-intensive process to uninstall and then remove registry keys and application data. The original SETI@home follows a similar process minus the convenience of the uninstaller."

The district has 4,947 computers, and the program was downloaded on most student and teacher computers, including new teacher laptops, Birdwell said.

The SETI@home program has been around for 10 years and is one of the most popular programs downloaded from the university's many research projects. Eight million people have downloaded the SETI@home screen saver, and there are 1 million active users in the program. Many people are interested in the question of, "Are we alone?" Werthimer said.

However, the SETI@home software is only one of many software downloads available for volunteers to participate in. Other programs include research on cancer, HIV, malaria drugs and global warming.

"The idea is that you can select the projects that you're most interested in and can allocate how you want your spare computing cycles to be used," Werthimer said. "We call it the democratization of supercomputing, or it's also called volunteer computing."

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