Paranoia Grips Dallas County Government Workers -- For Good Reason

Maybe you've been following the saga of Lisa Chambers, the Dallas County homeland security director who was canned this week over who knows what. The only part of it I'm really personally interested in is the paranoid part, because I happen to be paranoid myself.

It's like a club. We paranoid people can spot each other. We might have a certain handshake or a nod and a wink kind of thing that we do, but I can't talk about that.

Chambers says she refused to use county time and payroll to carry out a security sweep of the home of Dapheny Fain, administrative assistant to County Commissioner John Wiley Price, after the FBI tossed the homes and offices of both Fain and Price last June. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins says he sacked her over unspecified "performance issues."

Just for the sake of conversation, let's file most of that under "he-said-she-said" for the moment so we can talk about the paranoid part. Yesterday Fain's lawyer, Tom Mills, told me a story that I see Keven Krause has in The Dallas Morning News this morning: Mills says Fain told her all of the data disappeared from her county computer one day and then mysteriously reappeared.

OMG! That has happened to me, too! Multiple times. Most of the instances in my case turned out to be caused by recurring problems related to a coffee spill, but I personally do not remember spilling the coffee.

Anyway, Mills told me he had a discussion with Don Sherman, the lead FBI agent in the ongoing Dallas County corruption investigation, in which Mills told Sherman about Fain's experience with the disappearing data. He says Sherman refused to comment.

I checked on that with FBI spokesman Mark Smith today. He refused to comment too. Aha! A pattern.

Here's the good part: Mills says Sherman told him that, even though he could not comment on an ongoing investigation, it was conceivable that an FBI sweep of a person's computer could cause all of the data to disappear and then reappear. Really? Is that possible?

I cannot check Mill's story with Sherman because ... well, you get the picture. The G-men just are not chatty at all with us, but I did make calls this morning to a couple guys I know who are extremely computer security savvy.

One, Jason Ottwell of Dallas, cautioned me first of all not to toss the word paranoid around too casually when talking about people who have good reason to fear they may be under some kind of surveillance. "Especially in a high visibility post, you're going to have a certain heightened sense of awareness anyway," Ottwell said. "So if strange things start to happen, you're going to start wondering, 'Are there outside forces that are around me?' Are you really paranoid if they're really after you?"

Ottwell works for clients who can afford to spend whatever it takes to achieve very high degrees of security for their data. Most of us operate without that kind of cover: We don't do the encryption and physical security it would take to really keep people out.

But tight security has to do mainly with legitimate business issues -- patents, trade secrets, market strategy, etc. Ottwell said if you're a crook and in a pickle, even the best security may not protect. Eventually a judge is going to order you to pony up the keys to your security.

He said the disappearing data syndrome did not sound to him like an FBI deal. Why? If the FBI comes after you, he said, they don't really mess around with a lot of sneaky-Pete stuff. They just come get your computers. Like, pick 'em up, put 'em in a van.

Ottwell pointed out the FBI has to get search warrants, and then they have to do all kinds of things to preserve what is called "chain of custody" of evidence: They have to be able to prove in court they took it and didn't mess with it and nobody else could have messed with it while they had it in their possession.

So the best way to do that is to physically grab everything. "They go in and just confiscate servers, machines," Ottwell said. "They say, 'We're taking all of your machines, all of your CDs, all of your stuff. We're taking it from you.'"

Oh, yeah. I forgot. They did that. That was in the warrants that have been released. They took everything including jump drives and stuff like that from Fain's and Price's offices and homes.

And I did check with a knowledgeable source who told me off the record that, yeah, if the FBI wants your computer, that's what they do. They get a warrant and then come get the computer. Simple enough.

Ottwell said the FBI could still be taking occasional snapshots of the content of Fain's computer -- doing it remotely, without being there -- but he said that would not cause her data to disappear and reappear.

He did not say that Fain's claim was absurd. At all. He just said it didn't sound FBI. If it happened, he suggested, it might have had to do with somebody who was not FBI.

Hmm. That would be, I believe, somebody who did not have access to or the power of court-ordered warrants. Somebody who had to sneak in. Somebody who was doing more of a garden variety hack.

Another computer guru, inventor-entrepreneur Russell Fish, told me that Windows, the Microsoft graphical interface program most people use, is "so full of holes that even relatively unsophisticated people can get in." And I did find lots of stuff online reporting that the issue of data disappearing and reappearing can often be traced to Windows, either because of problems in the software itself or people messing with it.

Now this is starting to ring a bell. Over the last few years, I believe that the county administration building has been fairly crawling with private gumshoes, jack-leg shamuses and moonlight window-peepers -- including a few serious investigators -- all sticking their noses into each other's businesses. So it's perfectly possible that someone other than the FBI may have messed with Fain's stuff.

Go back to the top. Would any of this mean that Lisa Chambers, the fired security lady, should have obeyed orders and used county resources to do a security sweep of Fain's home? Well, I don't know. I wouldn't do it. Once I heard those three magic words -- eff bee eye -- I wouldn't go within a mile of her damn house.

Sorry, but I'm a major chicken where time in the joint is concerned. I sort of cross my legs and elbows and go into a crouch when I even hear the term "penal system." But is Dapheny Fain paranoid? Maybe not. Like Ottwell said, you're not paranoid if they're really after you.

So what do you think about the disappear-reappear data phenomenon? Ever happen to you? I'm interested. But, uh ... before telling your personal saga, do reflect on the fact that what you say here is not exactly secure.

What? That makes me paranoid? Fine. I'm paranoid. At least I'm not penal. I count my blessings.

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