Ms. MIS -- behind the hacking

A woman's sad story highlights the emotional devastation of sexual harassment and how it left her career in tatters.

Hakuntla devi singla is an unlikely computer hacker.

But during the second quarter, the 43-year-old India native, educated in the US, became one of the first women convicted of computer hacking in the US, according to an FBI spokesman.

Singla's crime: penetrating a US Coast Guard personnel database and deleting information in July last year, two months after she left the agency's employ as a computer specialist.

But what this tale is really about is how badly a situation can spiral out of control when a woman feels she is the victim of sexual harassment and her claims go unheeded.

There's bitter irony here. Singla constructed the very database she hacked, and she was considered so good as a database administrator and project manager that she had been chosen in 1994 for the Coast Guard's Executive Potential Program. Several of Singla's former co-workers describe her as a bright, outstanding worker.

So what prompted Singla, a happily married mother of two, with a spotless record, according to US federal authorities, to commit a felony?

From 1993 to 1997, Singla was the lone woman in a department with 15 men, following the only other woman there, who transferred out after charging a supervisor with harassment.

Singla says male colleagues routinely engaged in gender bias toward her. "They overrode my decisions and technical suggestions to outside government contractors in my specialty area of databases," she says. At branch meetings, Singla claims, she was publicly castigated by her colleagues. Other administrators took it upon themselves to interfere in her projects, calling contractors behind her back.

Each time an incident occurred, Singla protested. However, "the supervisor excused their behaviour and told me to ignore it because they were under stress," she says.

And although she doesn't allege there were improper advances or touches, Singla says the men's actions were sometimes buffoonish. For example, they perverted the acronym for the Coast Guard group in which she worked -- called Personnel Information Management at the time -- by nicknaming it " 'penises in motion', which I found very offensive," Singla says.

Why stay when information systems jobs are plentiful? "I loved the work, and I got along very well with my end users. My instincts told me to tough it out. I thought, ‘Why should I leave because of these men?'""When repeated complaints didn't produce results, Singla filed an internal Equal Employment Opportunity complaint against the supervisor in December 1996. Her once-stellar performance reviews went downhill. In May last year, Singla left the Coast Guard for an IS position at the Patent and Trademark Office.

In early July, Singla says, she got word through her attorney that the agency wouldn't forward her personnel records to the patent office unless she dropped the harassment complaint. A Coast Guard spokesman, Cmdr. Mike Lapinsky, denies that, saying, "appropriate records were forwarded"""It was the straw that broke the camel's back," Singla says. That evening, anger triumphed over conscience. She used her home computer to hack the Coast Guard's network. "It was a spur-of-the-moment action; I deeply regret it."

No one, including Singla's family, co-workers and supervisors at the Navy, the Coast Guard or the patent office, condones the hacking, however much they sympathise and believe her on the harassment issue. Hacking after all is a federal crime. Three months ago, Singla was sentenced to three years of supervised probation and five months' house arrest. She also was fired from the Patent and Trademark Office.

One must ask: is Singla credible, and did the charges have merit? "Yes", says Granville Hurley, a financial specialist at the Federal Transit Administration who investigated the complaint. Hurley interviewed Singla's co-workers, bosses and the woman who had lodged a sexual harassment complaint in 1992. "Singla was credible, and I definitely believed there was basis for her complaint," Hurley confirms.

Because Singla is proceeding with her complaint against the Coast Guard and appealing her dismissal from the patent office, neither agency will comment. Lapinsky, the Coast Guard's spokesman, called Singla's charges "a confidential matter""The upshot of all this? Everyone loses.

The Coast Guard, though it ultimately recovered its data, is tarnished by the two complaints. The patent office is also a loser. It hasn't been able to replace Singla, agency sources say.

Singla is the most obvious loser. She's a convicted hacker who has lost her job and reputation. Finding another IS position will be difficult.

In hindsight, Singla says, "If I had it to do all over again, I'd leave immediately."

That, perhaps, is the biggest loss of all: that Singla or anyone should conclude that fighting sexual harassment is futile.

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