Please visit the new home of Majikthise at bigthink.com/blogs/focal-point.

« Get out of Iraq now, before we start a bigger war | Main | Tell the Village Voice to keep Sparky »

January 13, 2007

Teacher faces 40 years for exposing kids to porn, blames adware

A 40-year-old substitute teacher is facing up to 40 years in prison for exposing children to internet pornography.

Julie Amero was convicted on Friday of four counts of risk of injury to a minor.

According to BoingBoing, the teacher blames an an adware infestation. Somehow, the PC may have become infected with pornographic adware, causing inappropriate content to blossom uncontrollably onto her screen.

The police maintained the Amero navigated to pornographic websites during classroom time, but expert witnesses for the defense testified that she could have spawned these windows by navigating to an innocent hairdressing site.

The news reports give no indication that Amero deliberately exposed students to pornography. It sounds like she was surfing the web during her downtime, got the computer infected with spyware, and had it pop back up when students were around.

I don't know enough about computer security to say whether Amero's spyware defense is plausible, but the author of the BoingBoing post seems to think so.

The more horrifying question is how a woman with no prior history of wrongdoing could be facing 40 years in prison for this embarrassing but relatively minor incident. If the teacher was accessing inappropriate content in the classroom, she deserves to be disciplined, maybe even fired. However, it's absurd to be considering jail time because the kids caught a glimpse of a few pop-up ads. People who make child pornography don't usually get 40 years.

Comments

One of the sites listed in the story seems to have been a sex-friendly advice site -- I didn't find anything very explicit on it. The other link is dead.

http://femalesexual.com/

As someone who's been in the IT industry for two decades, the adware/spyware/malware defense is completely plausible. It's a common cause of the same kind of thing within business networks. I'm shocked they didn't bring in any IT security experts to prove that point--because it's easily proved.

> I don't know enough about computer
> security to say whether Amero's spyware
> defense is plausible, but the author of
> the BoingBoing post seems to think so.

It is quite possible. I have seen similar things on systems my techs manage in situations where I am 99.95% sure that the PC user did not deliberately surf to a porn site.

But even the phrase "deliberately surf" has to be considered - the site "whitehouse-dot-com" was for a long time a quite ugly porn site and would have been very easy for even a child to accidently type in. And of course sites like that are the ones most likely to install malware - particuarly on an unpatched Windows PC.

Cranky

If you haven't seen a porno cascade on your screen due to a typo or a bad click, you're either lucky or have a good security software system (*multiple* antispyware installs, anti-popup software, constant updates, not using Internet Explorer, etc).

From what I read, neither of these factors was under this teacher's control.

Bad luck: It's easy bad luck to end up at an 'innocent' site which has been cracked, or at an innocent site where the old registration expired and the new owner puts up all sorts of icky links.

Extremely thorough software security: from what I read, she wasn't in control of that.

Actually,a couple incidents happened to me once, so absolutely I believe it could have happened to her.

A few years back, one of the sites I navigated to spawned a pop-up window. Then 2 more, then three more, then more and more... then the porn popup. Then more porn. I had about 12 explicitly pornographic adds spawning on my desktop when I heard the boss AND A CLIENT coming in. I quickly hit the hard-off power switch on the power supply, and claimed I was restarting after a computer crash when they asked what I was working on.

Similarly, one of my co-workers as infected with spyware after the boss, as a prank, loaded the popular gag-inducing "Meatspin" page on his computer.

I deal with viruses/adware/spyware for thousands of corporate machines. I have seen the type of infestation reported above. Even if the person was at the computer at the time, they might not have any idea that a link would kick off the cascade of pictures. Gambling and porn are among the most common.

I would think someone could have made an argument about intent. This teacher wanted to flash a porn slideshow to the kids? That should have been the standard of proof for any conviction.

There are also a class of programs called downloaders which burrow deeply into a system and periodically go out to sites for more programs. Finding and removing downloaders, short of system rebuilds requires a lot of time and expertise. The "forensic certified" law enforcement types rarely have this experience. Sadly for this person, the court likely gave one of these experts creedence, and hence the conviction.

Score another victory for the zero tolerance nitwits!

I'm not a security professional, but I do know public schools have a huge problem with obsolete networking software (along with everything else). It's entirely plausible that adware could be the culprit, as anything connected to a network is prone to such infestations. It exacerbates this problem when you're using a security/networking suite that's about 5 years out of date (as my high school dealt with during my time there).

The unfortunate way that the justice system works in the U.S. is that the wealthy can afford good legal representation to avoid conviction on charges that are plausible by hiring many experts for testimony to a jury to raise reasonble doubt issues.

A poor school teacher with either a small time self paid defense or relying on a public defender cannot expect the same level of expert testimony to be hired to build a good defense even on weak charges. It would be minimum of $80,000 upfront in cash for most criminal defense attorneys to even take a case like the school teacher's and thousands more to pay technology witnesses.

Likely the teacher will be backed into some sort of "plea bargain deal", which is no deal at all.

The boys with the Duke case are not in prison now because their parents were wealthy enough to hire goof legal representation to raise doubts about the case, otherwise they would all be serving time on rape charges.

Why the school didn't have better filtering software is also another issue. Better software might have prevented these popups.

Paul
--The boys with the Duke case are not in prison now because their parents were wealthy enough to hire goof legal representation to raise doubts about the case, otherwise they would all be serving time on rape charges.--

The "Duke Rape" case was a fraud from the beginning. It isn't that "doubts" were reised by parents hired by the "wealthy" families. The fact is that this was a trasparently false case from the beginning, a Tawana Brawley II.

No honest person has any doubts about the Duke case, nor have they had any doubts for many months. This is Exhibit A of Prosecutorial Misconduct. The prosecutor and the accuser should both the sent to prison for long terms on the same day. Maybe we could have photos of Nifong's " perp walk " when this is done, eh? That would be an excellent blog opportunity!

How is this even going to court? That's just what happens when you don't have the pop-up blocker on.

It happened to me at work one time, and a friend, hearing me curse out the computer because I couldn't navigate away from the barrage of porn ads, looked over my shoulder and said "talk about preaching to the converted."

Phantom,

You may very well be correct. However, Paul's point was not that the prosecutor's case wasn't flawed but that if the parents didn't have enough money to hire those fancy lawyers to find the flaws, the kids would be in prison by now.

This has happend to friends of mine when they were baby-sitting. They were always horrorified. They wanted to show some innocent website to the child they were babysitting, but a typo landed them on a porn site. And then they couldn't shut all the pop-ups. Luckily, the parents never find out about these things.

DAS

Noted. I just thought that the way Paul phrased it made it seem like these students had gotten over because of "white privilege" or some other Sociology 101 bullshit. If there are injustices with poor people, and surely there are, then lets focus on those injustices, and not on the fact that even worse injustice was not done to the Duke students by the Nifong and his local and national lynch mob.

---

And yes, I agree that this Amero case on the face of it stinks to high heaven. A bright light should continue to shine on it. This has all the appearance of injustice.

What I find incredible is this part:

But Smith countered Horner's testimony with that of Norwich Police Detective Mark Lounsbury, a computer crimes investigator. On a projected image of the list of Web sites visited while Amero was working, Lounsbury pointed out several highlighted links.

"You have to physically click on it to get to those sites," Smith said.

This is simply untrue, and supposedly this guy is some sort of expert, or is being treated as if he were. Puts me in mind of the "Satanic abuse" "experts" who infested police departments and went around giving their little talks filled with discredited BS. I wonder if they've changed their targets and this is the new focus for these "experts".

I just thought that the way Paul phrased it made it seem like these students had gotten over because of "white privilege" or some other Sociology 101 bullshit.

I think that's your paranoia talking again, Phantom. Paul's comment seemed to pretty transparently be saying, "Good thing those guys at Duke could afford good lawyers so they didn't get railroaded by overzealous prosecutors the way this teacher did."

Mnemosyne

But Paul did not say that.

Must be your paranoia that thinks that my comments stem from paranoia. Don't be paranoid!

Phantom, my family has personal experience with class justice. My brother isn't "Mother Teresa", but not really too bad of a guy. But when a meth producer had a house fire due to his dangerous and illegal operation, he was convinced that my brother was responsible for the fire, which is real nonsense considering how many meth house fires result from screwed up people on meth cooking hazardous substances.

My brother could not afford $80,000 for a decent criminal attorney to point out what a nonsense case this was and was forced to accept a four year sentence plea bargain deal by a prosecutor. The prosecutor really had no evidence at all in my brother's case, just some meth cooker who had completely questionable character and winesss.

My brother lacked the cash to hire great legal representation to raise doubts about case like the parents of the Duke boys, so my brother has to cool his heels in prison four years. How many poor Blacks and others are serving time for crimes that they did not commit because they cannot afford a decent attorney. The wealthy such celebrities can defend themselves of crimes as serious as murder, while the poor go to prison for crimes that they did commit because they cannot afford to defend themselves other than a public defender who usually urges the innocent to accept plea deals because it saves them spending more than few minutes on a case.

Damn. If I was in the area and knew about this, I would have offered to testify for free as an expert witness. I have 5 years of experience doing outsourced phone tech support for companies such as Gateway, SBC (now AT&T), and several hotel chains. This kind of stuff happens ALL THE TIME to people who use insecure browsers (especially unpatched or rarely-patched versions of IE running under Windows). It's rare to find a system run by non-techies that DOESN'T have some kind of spyware on it.

I have personal knowledge of a spontaneous explosion of pop-up porn site ads on a school system computer due to tricky links.

Fortunately, the computer techs were able to solve the problem after getting a good laugh at the shocked and embarrassed " sixty-something" widow upon whose computer they blossomed. And this system supposedly had good malware and firewall protections. Also it has so many sites administratively blocked by key-word seach input that the school psychologists and behavior analysts often can't get to things they need to read up on.

Personally, I am fed up with the easy access to internet porn....but any specific suggestions would, I am sure, spawn a very HEATED discussion on here about censorship.

That having been said, perhaps the board moderator could launch a crusade to raise $$$ for this woman to appeal?

Just note that the court only reached the verdict. The sentence will be handed down in two months; 40 years is just the maximum possible sentence for the offense, not what she actually got.

This appears to be such an egregious error by whatever passes as a court system out there, that you would hope that the chance of a successful appeal would be 100%.

I would hope that Amero does not accept a plea deal for "only" 6-12 months.

The adult entertainment industry did attempt to segregate their type of content from the regular internet a few years ago with the idea of ".xxx" rather than ".com" settings. But the Bush Administration as well as right wing censorship organizations complained heavily about the idea, so adult content remains very easy for children or anyone else who doesn't want such material to fall into it unless filters, popup blockers, and other safeguards, none of which are 100% fool proof are used.

Even young fans of Britany Spears can easily run into the crude Hustler magazine quality "limosine" photos of her very easily when doing an innocent personality search.

The adult entertainment industry wanted the ".xxx" settings to be an area where they could easily operate and only willing persons would access the content. However, the government and censorship organizations want to maintain the power to enforce unconstitutional "obscenity" laws against websites that they feel cross some line of bad taste. However not a single word of the First Admendment gives government the power to do something to someone because of something said in the name of free speech. The notion that the government can prosecute material as "obscene" is very new, and did not start with the Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution and Bill Of Rights.

In fact, is was 1840 before a Massachusetts bookstore dealer was arrested without charge for offering for sale a copy of the racy European novel, FANNY HILL. It was not until 1841, that a law was finally passed in the Massachusetts legislature that actually created a crime to justify the arrest of this bookstore dealer. In the early, 1900's the zealot, Anthony Comstock began the latest round of obscenity prosecutions that has lasted until today.

The U.S. government now attempts to bring now national websites by selecting a conservative district to prosecute them for violating "local community standards", and bringing more than one charge of obscenity, allowing racketeering laws with fines that run into the millions of dollars, up to 90 years in prison, and the seizing of corporate assets. The absurd and unconstitutional standard of"local community standards" are used to find conservative U.S. districts in which to destroy California or other national websites that are entirely legal in the district they originate from. The fact of the matter is that the Founding Fathers never intended that local politicians or judges should have the power to judge what content is be allowed in their community, or that an national and international community such as the internet could be subject to local laws destroying content acceptable in the rest of the nation or world as a whole.

An entire video store chain in Virginia was brought down by the federal government for just three DVDs, with four more acquited of obscenity charges, and then a NY distributor was prosecuted for sending these three DVDs into virginia. The assets of seven businesses were seized by the government, $1 million in fines was issued and the video chain owner faced 90 years in prison.

Obscenity laws are very unevenly applied as well. DVDs featuring homosexuality or transsexuality are often easily prosecuted, while DVDs offering sexual content involving heterosexuals are almost universally not seen as obscene by juries.

Part of the problem with the teacher is that the content was not ruled as obscene in a prior case, so therefore the teacher may have some grounds for appeal that the materials did not really rise to the level of some criminal content to really justify a conviction. Plus other grounds for an appeal certainly exist including the pop-up problem, but only if she has the money to appeal. My best advise is for her to seek out free legal help from the ACLU. They may find this case involves important issues and could turn it around for her.

A surprisingly unsympathetic article. There were allegationst that she clicked onto specific images, and the question was asked (and apparently was not answered)as to why she just didn't unplug the computer or shut it off.

This does not change my opinion, but these are points/possibilities worth considering.

Excellent link, Phantom. It certainly raises new questions about the case. Only the history link on toolbar will tell the truth whether the teacher actively sought out adult websites in a classroom of young children.

Unlike some teachers like Pamela Rodgers or others who actually sought out children for sex, the 40 year possible sentence does seem extremely tough for something that does not involve actual acting out or contact even if the teacher is proved to be guilty, though.

The first opinion on the PC blog is interesting but probably erroneous. The very next opinion explains that yes indeed there could have been a record of the computer visiting the porn websites even though the woman did not manually direct it there.

A Windows operating system keep a record of every web site ever visited on a computer (whether you actually manually direct it to that website or a virus directs it to that website) in system files called the index.dat files. A little known secret thingy that MicroSick has on there for whatever nefarious purposes.

Even when you empty your browser cache and clear your history, the information remains. The index.dat files are locked while Windows is running and you cannot enter to manually delete the information without (1) being aware of the existence of index.dat files and (2)knowing how to find and clean them out. Software is sold for exacly this purpose under various trade names that refer to scrubbing internet tracks.

To manually clean index.dat files, one must know how to boot the computer in safe mode and run DOS command lines.

Given the sophistication of many viruses to infect system files and completely corrupt their intended purposes, I do not find it beyond the scope of reality for something like this to happen.

I do agree, however, that turning the computer off and getting technical help ASAP would probably have helped this woman's case.

The comments to this entry are closed.