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February 13, 2007

AP finally picks up Amero story

The Associated Press has finally covered the Julie Amero story! Reporter John Christoffersen did a good job, too.

Amero is a substitute teacher in Connecticut who was convicted of four felonies earlier this month because a malware-infected computer in her classroom got locked in an irreversible cascade of pornographic popup ads in 2004.

Amero had been forbidden to turn off the computer by the teacher who signed her into the system using his password. The computer had no content filter because the responsible IT staff had forgotten to pay the vendor who supplied this protection. Forensic experts ascertained that the computer was infected with multiple adware and spyware programs, one of which automatically redirected the browser to a porn site on the morning in question.

I reported on the Amero story for AlterNet in late January. I'm thrilled to see that the news of this miscarriage of justice is getting more traction.

[HT: Raw Story.]

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I'm sorry to say that this is the first I've heard of this story. What a travesty. No firewall? No antivirus or antimalware software? That school's network administrator should be the one in jail.

It would only take one or two sysadmins being convicted of something equivelent to malpractice to turn the tide on the shoddy IT practices that prevail in too many organizations. Sysadmins and netadmins get paid to ensure that an organization's systems are (and remain) useful, safe and secure. When they fail to acheive that bare miniumum baseline objective, that's a serious problem. Like, "maybe it's time for you to look for a new job" serious.

Or, instead of sending anyone to jail, we could just say "Wow! That was really embarassing! Good thing a few dirty pictures never hurt anyone. Is there something we could be doing to prevent that from happening in the future?"

Great work Lindsay. You scooped the MSM as always.

The New York Times picked it up too. More coverage = more tech-savvy people who'll see right away what an injustice this case is = more pressure to get the verdict overturned.

Or, instead of sending anyone to jail, we could just say "Wow! That was really embarassing! Good thing a few dirty pictures never hurt anyone. Is there something we could be doing to prevent that from happening in the future?"

Windy, I didn't really mean to suggest that a few dirty pictures was worth sending anyone to jail over, but I do think that when people get paid to be responsible for an organization's information systems, they should BE RESPONSIBLE for them. And regardless of what you think of porn, surely we can agree that in the context of a school's network, "responsible" probably includes malware protection and adult-content filtering?

Res, That's fair enough.

I haven't followed this well enough to know how culpable the IT staff are for this. I mean, given how quickly they jumped on Amero, I'm not convinced right away tht IT staff are to blame either. I've worked in IT, and we've sometimes been almost to the point of screaming to explain what will happen if some software license is allowed to expire.

I just read the AP piece, and it's amazing how everybody tries to second-guess her. I've been using computers for decades, and I think my first impulse would have been to click away the pop-up and move on, which is what she did. If the pop-ups kept coming back, I might take a different technical approach to solve the problem (although, really, a spyware-infested computer needs a time-consuming effort to clean, or it has to be wiped clean for a fresh start), but Amero wouldn't have been able to do that.

Should she turn the computer off, against instructions? Cover it with her coat as one juror suggested? Then what? If she goes to get help, she'd be leaving the students with the computer that's showing all the porn, right? And while she's thinking about it, the porn just keeps on coming, in front of children! I'm...let's just say "not uncomfortable"...with porn, but I'd be freaking out if there were children watching.

If Amero was uncomfortable with porn herself, didn't understand computers, and hadn't experienced something like this, thought about it, or been trained to handle it, she would have been overwhelmed.

She probably should have just shut it off, but it's hard to fault her for becoming flustered.

(In hindsight, she would have been in less trouble if she'd thrown the computer out the window...)

In any case, there may be enough here to justify firing both Amero and the IT staff, but prosecuting either for this is way out of line.

BTW, here's a technical example of how spyware like this works. (Naughty bits are covered, but still probably not safe for work.)

It's spreading internationally...

Spiegel Online: Porno-Pop-Ups - Lehrerin droht jahrzehntelange Haft

Bizarrer Justizfall in USA: Weil auf dem PC einer Lehrerin während des Unterrichts Werbung für Pornoseiten auftauchte, droht der Frau nun eine lange Haftstrafe - im schlimmsten Fall bis zu 40 Jahre.
[...]

I haven't followed this well enough to know how culpable the IT staff are for this. I mean, given how quickly they jumped on Amero, I'm not convinced right away tht IT staff are to blame either. I've worked in IT, and we've sometimes been almost to the point of screaming to explain what will happen if some software license is allowed to expire.

From what I've read, it's pretty clear that the school administration decided to scapegoat Amero to protect themselves.

--it's pretty clear that the school administration decided to scapegoat Amero to protect themselves.--

Strongly agree. And hearing the comments like "well, it never happened to any other staff" pisses me off. They don't even know that to be true--it may have happened to others who, especially in the environment in that school, were and are afraid to come forward.

I've had the "cascade of porn" popup ads a couple of times over ten years. The first time, it was pretty goddamned scary. I didn't know if the PC was going to be permanently commandeered. I figured out how to get rid of it, but then, I kinda sorta knew what I was doing.

Even when I actively try to understand the prosecution's point of view, the farthest I can plausibly get to is a position where there is a 1% chance that she was some kind of pervert that decided to display porn in a school class, or a 1.1% chance that she was some freak that was playing around with porn sites in class and had the thing spin out of control.

But...Amero's testimony sounds entirely and completely plausible to me. The prosecutor is a disgrace,a blight on the profession, a Nifong.

There's not even the beginning of a case here.

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