Thursday, January 25, 2007

Nightmare, Justice, or Both?

"It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."
-- Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Julie Amero, a substitute teacher in Connecticut, faces up to 40 years in prison after being convicted for exposing her middle school students to adult material via the classroom computer. While it is clear that Amero's students were exposed to adult material, Amero's guilt in the matter is it is less clear. According to W. Herbert Horner, an expert witness for the defense, the material appeared in pop-up ads displayed by spyware installed on the PC. Horner also discovered that the spyware had been on the classroom's computer many days before Amero was hired to substitute that day. Yet, the prosecution blocked the presentation of this evidence at trial. Had this evidence been presented, it clearly would have created a reasonable doubt.

This case has generated quite a bit of online coverage; here are some of the most informative links:

  • Lindsay Beyerstein's AlterNet article is in my opinion, the most complete single article.

  • Network Performance Daily has a set of related articles including more details about Horner's findings and a response from Det. Mark Lounsbury, the investigating officer.

  • An article in The Norwich Bulletin, a paper near the school where the incident appeared, offers a timeline describing events in the case. A careful reading of their coverage suggests they support the prosecution's assertions.

  • Alex Eckelberry, CEO of Sunbelt Software (a spyware vendor), has blogged extensively about the case. This post, in particular, provides a bulleted list of the reasons why I personally feel this conviction is a travesty of justice.

I have dealt with computers infected by spyware that cause multiple pop-ups ads to appear. Most of the ads refer to adult sites and I can confirm that they are very difficult to close quickly or easily. You close one and six more appear. I can see how such an experience could be very overwhelming. In addition, the computer in question was running Windows 98 and Internet Explorer 5, versions highly susceptible to "drive-by installations," one of the most commonly used techniques to install spyware onto Windows-based PC's.

It is also interesting to note that the school allowed the license of their web filtering software to lapse, citing budget constraints. This would mean that they were unable to update the databases used by the filtering software, which in turn, would leave them vulnerable attack from sites adding exploits after the last database update.

Occam's Razor is frequently paraphrased to something along the lines of "all things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one." Is it easier to believe that a self-confessed computer neophyte would knowingly and deliberately risk her career exposing her student to pornography or that she just happened to be on duty when the lack of security decisions resulted in an inevitable exposure?

Please understand that I completely support protecting children from inappropriate material. I also understand a parent's immediate and intense desire to make someone pay when their child is exposed to this material, especially in a trusted environment such as school. However, given the prevalence of this material on the Internet--and the ease with which it can be unknowingly installed on older operating systems, especially by inexperienced users, I believe it's unfair to convict a substitute teacher to a 40-year prison sentence due to something that cannot be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.

If you are using a Windows-based computer, please make sure you have installed all the latest security updates. If you are not using Windows XP Service Pack 2, please upgrade...and quickly. If you use Internet Explorer, please make sure you are using Internet Explorer version 7, which guards against "drive-by install" attacks. No matter which operating system or browser you use, make sure you have a reputable virus scanner with an active subscription and an effective spyware detector. It won't protect you from all the dangers of the Internet, but it will help...especially if you have children or inexperienced users.

Photo credit: Zapa Csitul


Blogger whitesnake said...

Thanks for the tip.

Now if I could only get mp3's to work on my blog!

Any ideas,
I am a novice at it!

5:21 PM  
Blogger Footpad said...

@whitesnake: Well, first, you'll need a place to upload your MP3's to, such as MediaMax or one of many other sites that offer free web space.

Once you've uploaded your MP3's, you'll have web addresses for each one.

Next, you'll want to update your blogger template to include a "hack" that plays MP3 files from their web addresses, like the one mentioned in this blog post.

Mind you, this is one of those things that raises the hackles of the RIAA. If you're not creating the tracks on your own, you might hear from someone at some point.

Hope this helps...

-- f

8:47 PM  
Blogger Jane Poe (aka Deborah) said...

What a travesty for this substitue teacher ... I hope there is an appeal and justice prevails in her innocence. Thank you for all of the important tips to prevent the pervasiveness of spyware. x...x, JP

10:37 PM  
Blogger Kindness (disarms the difficult) said...

definitely a nightmare. i have a macIntosh but used to have a PC at the last place I worked and it was a nightmare. our IT dept. didn't know a router from a hole in the ground so pop-ups ran rampant. they also had no clue how to manage the problem. glad i no longer work there.

i am with you jane, an appeal for justice is in order.

9:07 AM  
Blogger paris parfait said...

Amen, amen and amen!

6:25 AM  
Blogger gerry rosser said...

Hi, I've been stopping in to visit bloggers who have been kind and supportive to Darlene of "A Walk In My Shoes." I think it's wonderful that all that kindness has been shown, and that a little sort of community has sprung up. I only know her from blogging, and am no more an "insider" than anyone else, less than some. So, hope this isn't an intrusion.

Sounds like a terrible injustice, does the prosecutor in question know Mike NiFong personally?

Drop in on my any time.

6:03 AM  
Blogger whitesnake said...

Thanks mate I'll give it a whirl in the near future.
Oh I left ya a couple of kisses at your better halfs site so ya better pick em up before she takes the lot.

Stay strong with her eh!

8:40 PM  

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