Fear and stupidity combined with great power is a very dangerous thing. And that's exactly what's going on in this country right now.
In 2004, Julie Amero reported for duty as a substitute teacher in Connecticut as she had done for the past two years. Julie's life was on the upswing: She was pregnant with the child she and her husband Wes had wanted for years, they had a nice home in a nice town, and she was doing what she loved most, working with children. On October 19, 2004, Julie's life as she knew it was swept away by a "porn storm", or "pornado" caused by malware. The computer in the classroom where Julie was teaching was flooding popup windows and ads, some of which were pornographic, and Julie didn't know how to stop them.
She was accused, tried and convicted of causing the "risk of injury to a child", under Connecticut State Law. The law in Connecticut reads as follows:
Any person who willfully or unlawfully causes or permits any child under the
age of sixteen to be placed in such a situation that the morals of that child
are likely to be impaired shall be punished.
As I write this, her conviction has been overturned by the trial court and she is awaiting a new trial, as a result of the efforts of many: her lawyers, the Connecticut State Police crime lab, and computer forensic experts around the country.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of others who are in the same boat as Julie Amero.
Witness Mathew Bandy, the 16-year old, who almost went to prison for a false computer forensics charge. Or the teacher in your district (I assure you, there is one), who has spent all of their life savings trying to defend themselves from spurious computer "porn" charges -- when it likely that porn was downloaded on a classroom computer by a student.
The problem is big. And it's not just schools. It's in business as well. We see trojans all day long that download nasty stuff, which aren't the result of anyone having done anything.
And how many people are never charged but quietly fired?
As long as this society has made the decision that porn is a dangerous societal problem, then people all over the world are operating "dangerous" machinery. And when you get educators involved, it's a disaster waiting to happen.
To us, Julie Amero's case has always been about two things:
- Freeing Julie
- Making sure it doesn't happen to others
New technologies require education. DNA analysis and evidence has been misused to convict innocent people, bringing the Innocence Project into being for the purpose of education and reforming the system to fairly use a powerful forensic tool. Computers and computer networks are also powerful tools, but much education and reforms are needed to be sure that they are not used against innocent people. In general, judges are not computer experts, nor are many of the lawyers involved on the prosecution and defense.
This is deeply personal to me. Years ago, a family member was charged with a very serious crime under the RICO act, for which I know without question that he was completely innocent. Tens of thousands of dollars later and a horrible experience, we finally got him out of prison. But do you know what RICO does? Your life, property, everything -- gone -- poof.
When people bang the drum about someone being "guilty!", I always pause -- and
look. Yes, most people charged with a crime are guilty. But not all of them, and that I know for certain.
Our purpose here is twofold: First, to bring attention to those situations where injustice is being done through the misuse or misunderstanding of computers and computer forensics; and second, to prevent future injustice wherever we are able.