Distributed.net RC5-64 Project Makes a Felon

By Tom McFadden

Date: July 25, 2001

UPDATE:  David McOwen now faces two felony convictions for up to 30 years imprisonment, $415,000 in damages and a $100,000 fine for the RC5 case.


The State of Georgia's Attorney General's Office is preparing to bring computer technician David McOwen before a Grand Jury for felony indictment under the Georgia Computer Systems Protection Act for allegedly installing a popular screensaver on a school's computers. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, and the prosecution is reportedly seeking $415,000 in damages.

Mr. McOwen configured computer systems for DeKalb Technical College.  McOwen allegedly installed an unauthorized screensaver on the PCs he was building for the school. The prosecution has been developing their case against McOwen since he was fired from his job almost two years ago for having installed the screensaver.

The prosecution's assessment of damages allegedly caused by the screensaver, and the severity of the possible sentence have scandalized the computing community throughout the world. The online petition at http://www.petitiononline.com/movsog/ contains the comments of over 1800 people from all over the world scolding the prosecution and urging the dismissal of the case, and web pages like http://www.tacube.com/pages/mcowen.html and http://www.freemcowen.com/ tell the story as well.

"Felony charges for a case like this are laughable, and the the damages sought are totally imaginary," writes Ken Andersen of Iowa, in his comments in the petition. Daniel Poe adds, "Another case of the government chasing good people while the criminals run free." "This is a sad case of punishing someone with a obscure law. To the state of Georgia, if you go through with this, you might has well included e-mail, instant messaging, listening to music, etc.. has well [sic]," comments Danny Tangtam.  Others from as far away as Europe, Africa, South America and Asia have expressed their dismay with the prosecution and at the state of Georgia.

The screensaver in question is the Distributed.net RC5-64 client. When the screensaver starts, the computer's idle processing is used to check a single known-but-encrypted message in order to find a digital "key" that will decrypt it into its known contents. The computer will check a block of "keys" and occasionally use the computer's existing Internet connection to exchange its block of tested keys for a new block of untested keys.

This occasional network usage is what may have alarmed DeKalb Technical College staff and triggered the firing and investigation. However, the use of screensavers that use a computer's idle time to do productive work is nothing new or unusual among Universities, colleges, large corporations or even governmental agencies. In this case, the key checking is part of a public challenge issued by the prestigious RSA Security Labs, whose encryption technology makes safe online shopping and communications a reality for today's Internet users.

Other similar projects include researching the eco-regions of the Southeast for the benefit of farmers, researching cures for cancer, analyzing huge amounts of radio-telescope data (SETI), and researching mathematical proofs and optimized radiation shielding. The computer programs or screensavers are designed to specifically avoid interfering with the security or normal operation of the computer.

The story has been carried on John Dvorak's "Silicon Spin" television show and reported upon by many Internet technology sites including Slashdot. Another well-researched article is at Salon.com: http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2001/07/17/screensaver/index.html.

Mr. McOwen and his wife have exhausted their savings hiring a defense attorney, and the Internet community has rallied to his aid with over $2000 in donations from all over the world.  Many have volunteered expert assistance regarding the technical aspects of the case.

The prosecution seems determined to seek a felony conviction, with a maximum sentence that is harsher than most rapists serve. Still unanswered are the questions of how many Georgia taxpayers' dollars have been spent during the 18-month investigation, and whether Governor Barnes intends to intervene on Mr. McOwen's behalf.


Editor's note: The author, Tom McFadden, is a Distributed.net RC-5 teammate of the accused, David McOwen.