HOUSTON (CN) – A former computer chief for Harris County claims the county fired for him telling the FBI that the Sheriff’s Office planned to illegally hack into the county’s computer network to perform a “security audit” – for as long as 2 years – an operation that should take no longer than a month.
Wilfrido Mata says he was the Harris County Sherriff’s Department’s director of infrastructure technology until he was fired in May.
“In September 2009, John Dyess, the Sheriff Office’s Chief Administrative Officer, informed Mata that the Sheriff’s Office was to undergo a ‘security audit’ of its computer systems,” according to the complaint in Harris County Court.
When John Erwin, whom the sheriff’s department hired on contract to perform the audit, discussed “getting a view” of the computer system, Mata said the county’s director of infrastructure technology, Bruce High, should be involved.
Mata claims that Erwin said he did not need High’s help, although High’s office controlled the routers and passwords for the network. Erwin said he could get the information he needed by “packet sniffing,” Mata says.
“‘Packet sniffing’ is when a person plugs a device into a computer network and captures the mode of transmissions, the binary code, that computers use to ‘talk’ to each on a network,'” according to the complaint. “‘Packet sniffing’ is a favorite technique employed by computer ‘hackers’ – persons who are unauthorized users of a computer network.
“Harris County owned, operated and controlled the computer network infrastructure used by the Sheriff’s Office,” Mata says. He adds that he “was ordered by the Sheriff to cooperate with Mr. Erwin.”
Mata says he grew concerned when Erwin told him the “security audit,” which should take two weeks to a month to complete, would take one to two years, he says.
“Disturbed by the plan to ‘hack’ into Harris County’s computer system at the order of the Sheriff, and the orders he had received to cooperate with Mr. Erwin in that effort, Mata met with agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Sept. 29, 2009,” the complaint states.
After hearing his story, the FBI asked Mata to go undercover and wear a recording device to a meeting with Erwin and others, according to the complaint.
“On Oct. 7, 2009, Mata, in a meeting with Mr. [John] Dyess [the sheriff’s chief administrative officer] disclosed that he was sure that the project with Mr. Erwin was unlawful and that he had been cooperating with the FBI,” according to the complaint. “Mata removed the recording device in front of Mr. Dyess and informed him that he had been cooperating with the FBI.”
Mata says he was fired in May this year.
He seeks damages for retaliation and whistle-blowing violation.
The only defendant named is Harris County.
Mata is represented by Charles Frye of Houston.