Higley: IT boss in trouble for alien search, porn - East Valley Tribune: News

Higley: IT boss in trouble for alien search, porn

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Posted: Tuesday, December 1, 2009 3:29 pm | Updated: 12:55 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

A longtime Higley Unified School District information technology director has lost his job and is under police investigation for taking computers home, downloading pornography and installing computer software throughout the district that searches for extraterrestrial intelligence.

It will take about a year and more than $1 million in estimated costs to fix the various problems caused by Brad Niesluchowski, who had worked in the Higley district since January 2000, said Superintendent Denise Birdwell.

Brad Niesluchowski

By downloading the unauthorized software in February 2000, Niesluchowski bogged down the district's system, interfered with teachers' technology use in the classroom and used unnecessary electricity, Birdwell said.

The district was forced to replace an estimated 2,300 computer processors because of the 24-hour use of the computers. There also was a security concern because the software activity required holes in the firewall, which potentially allowed others into the district's system, she said.

"Clearly this is a disturbing find," Birdwell said. "We acted quickly and found other things, such as incompetence to ethical concerns. The district is cooperating (with Gilbert police) and is the victim."

Niesluchowski also is accused of taking at least 18 computers and other technology equipment to use in his home-based business, downloading pornography on school computers, and generally failing to do his job in the technology department, according to public records obtained by the East Valley Tribune.

Niesluchowski resigned from the district Oct. 22, in lieu of termination. He was sent a termination notice on Oct. 7.

"It was in the best interests to let the criminal courts handle it," Birdwell said.

District officials have been working with the Gilbert Police Department since mid-September, and it is considered an "active investigation," said Sgt. Mark Marino, who wouldn't comment further. A police report was not immediately available.

Niesluchowski's lawyer, Robert Arentz with Phillips & Associates, did not return calls to comment.

The dollar amount to fix the issues, including man hours to remove the software, is unknown but estimated at $1.2 million to $1.6 million. Removing the software will take several months, and should be done by the holiday break, Birdwell said.

"It's not easy to remove it," Birdwell said. "You just can't hit an uninstall button."

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. The audit was discussed Nov. 5 at a school board meeting.

The four-month audit has uncovered many problems within the technology department, and suggested district officials reorganize the information technology department. New technology director Chuck Kelly started Nov. 23. The school board approved new job descriptions, and the six current technology employees are expected to reinterview for their jobs in January to see if they are qualified for the new positions.

The problems include a network system not designed to handle the district's growth, a system in need of substantial repair and a building needed to securely house the network. There are also cabling problems and a lack of tracking inventory for technology equipment that is three years out of date.

It will take at least a year to fix all of the issues, Birdwell said.

The problems stem from Niesluchowski, who built the district's system and has held several positions within the technology department.

The software he downloaded onto district computers, known as SETI@home, is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers to analyze radio telescope data in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

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 computer, the software kicked into gear and used the computer's power, space and bandwidth for its research. SETI@home involves millions of home users from around the world in research conducted by the University of California Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory, according to their Web site.

Niesluchowski, who went by NEZ in the program, was considered a "world grid runner" for the SETI competition because of the many computers he was able to install the program on. He was seen as a "God" because of his status, Birdwell said.

Members on a message board discussing the SETI program often wondered who NEZ was because of his "high credit." One user, who went by the name Captain Avatar, even surmised that NEZ was not using all of his own computers, "probably some university or corporate system."

The problems were discovered at the beginning of the school year when teachers were having problems in the classroom with new technology installed during the summer. Five schools received interactive white boards, document cameras and laptops as part of a district technology rollout, Birdwell said.

Teachers who were using their interactive white boards in the classroom, and turned away for a few minutes to teach a lesson, turned back to see their boards had shut down. They had to reboot their computer to finish the lesson. Teachers were also having problems sending in grades, Birdwell said.

Former administrators, including former superintendent Joyce Lutrey, knew about the software and told Niesluchowski to remove it. He assured them he had removed it, and no one looked into whether it had been done, Birdwell said.

"No matter how long someone has been here, they should have been held accountable," she said. "Multiple administrators tried to handle it in a less aggressive fashion. I wish four years ago someone would have done something.

"It's been a nightmare," Birdwell said.  

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