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Fired IT Employee at Online Indiana College Offered to Help Unlock Google Account for $200K

Litigation involving the American College of Education highlights a situation that cybersecurity experts warn could occur more frequently.
Image: File picture illustration of the word 'password' pictured on a computer screen taken in Berlin
File picture illustration of the word 'password' pictured on a computer screen.PAWEL KOPCZYNSKI / Reuters

An axed IT worker at an online Indiana college told his former employer he would be "happy" to help unlock its Google account, the school said. But his offer came with a hefty price — $200,000.

The ongoing litigation involving suburban Chicago man Triano Williams and the Indianapolis-based American College of Education highlights a situation that cybersecurity experts warn could occur more frequently.

As companies and individuals outsource the development and operations of their websites and tech programs to others, they're also giving up control and putting themselves at risk, said Gene Spafford, founder and executive director emeritus of Purdue University's Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security.

It's similar to any business or school entrusting just one employee with the responsibility of maintaining an account or knowing how something internal works, Spafford added.

"Think of it this way: Would you have only one person writing checks or one person holding the key to the factory?" he asked.

In the case of American College of Education, or ACE, Williams was the only employee in IT at the time with administrative access to the school's Google-hosted domain account. After he was fired from the school last February and returned his computer equipment, officials in June learned they could not access the Google account, which had about 2,000 student emails and course work accounts.

At that point, Williams, who sought legal aid, refused to help unless the school wanted to rehire him as a consultant and pay him accordingly.

"In order to amicably settle this dispute, Mr. Williams requires a clean letter of reference, and payment of $200,000," his attorney, Calvita Frederick, wrote to ACE's attorney.

The school filed a lawsuit against Williams for intentional interference with a contractual relationship, among other accusations, and sought court action to compel him to provide the user name and password for the Google account.

Related: Simple Cyber Security Tips to Protect Your Online Accounts Against Hackers

Frederick told NBC News on Wednesday that her client never even knew the password because it was autosaved in the school's laptop computer. While Williams did have the ability to help figure out how to access the Google account, she advised him that he was under no obligation to be "fixing it for free."

Frederick blamed the school for creating its own "monstrous situation" when other employees with IT expertise were let go before Williams.

She also filed a discrimination lawsuit against the school, claiming that Williams, who is black and had been with ACE since 2007, was being retaliated against for complaining to supervisors that the "racial climate was uncomfortable." Before he was terminated, Williams was told that he would have to move from the Chicago area to Indiana to maintain employment. But Frederick said he refused because he was under a joint custody agreement with his daughter's mother and was unable to relocate.

Frederick said the requested $200,000 compensation was meant to settle the discrimination case and was not a form of a financial shakedown.

"Mr. Williams didn't do anything intentional to them," Frederick added.

The school has since been able to have Google unlock the account for them, although that took time because the tech giant generally only provides account information to the designated administrator. In ACE's case, that had been Williams.

A school spokeswoman declined to comment on pending litigation to NBC News, but the school said in a statement that "at no time was the personal information compromised" of students or staff.