Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Father of three in England and substitute teacher in Connecticut have their lives upended by computer viruses that launch pornographic images onto screens

Consider a father of three in England and a female substitute teacher in Connecticut. How might their lives intersect? The answer, in one instance, is that their computers contracted viruses that led to pornography charges, turning their lives upside down.

The 2003 case of Julian Green in the UK received international news coverage and might be the best-known example of virus-borne child porn wreaking havoc on someone's life. In about the same time frame, Julie Amero was trying to fulfill the thankless task of being a substitute teacher, in Norwich CT, when students saw pornographic images popping up on her school-issued laptop. The images apparently were of adult porn, but Amero still faced criminal charges that took years to resolve.

Could a virus, pop-up ad, or spam be responsible for images that are central to the pending Missouri child-porn case of U.S. v. Scott J. Wells? It's too early to say, but if that proves to be the case, Wells will not have been the first person to be put through hell because of a computer virus linked to porn. From a New York Times piece on the Julian Green case:

One evening late in 2001, Julian Green's 7-year-old daughter came upstairs from the computer room of their home in the resort town of Torquay, in western England, and said, ''The home page has changed, and it's something not very nice.''

When Mr. Green checked the machine, he found that the family PC seemed almost possessed. The Internet home page had somehow been switched so that the computer displayed a child pornography site when the browser software started up. Even if he turned the machine off, it would turn itself back on and dial the Internet on its own.

Mr. Green called the computer maker and followed instructions to return his PC to a G-rated state. The pornography went away, but the computer still often crashed and kept connecting to the Internet even when ''there was no one in the blinking house,'' he said.

The call to customer service, it turned out, hardly was a solution:

But Mr. Green's problems were only beginning. Last October, local police knocked on his door, searched his home and seized his computer. They found no sign of pornography in his home but discovered 172 images of child pornography on the computer's hard drive. They arrested Mr. Green. This month, Mr. Green was acquitted in Exeter Crown Court after arguing that the material had been gathered without his knowledge by a rogue program created by hackers -- a so-called Trojan horse -- that had infected his PC, probably during innocent Internet surfing. Mr. Green, 45, is one of the first people to use this defense successfully.

While a case that played out in the British legal system sets no precedent in the United States, legal experts say the technical issues raise two troubling possibilities. For one, actual child pornographers could arm themselves with a new alibi that would be difficult to disprove. Or, unknowing Web surfers could find themselves charged with possessing illegal material that a lurking software program has acquired.

''The scary thing is not that the defense might work,'' said Mark Rasch, a former federal computer crime prosecutor. ''The scary thing is that the defense might be right,'' and that hijacked computers could be turned to an evil purpose without an owner's knowledge or consent.

''The nightmare scenario,'' Mr. Rasch said, ''is somebody might go to jail for something he didn't do because he was set up.''

How bad can this be for the wrongfully accused?

Mr. Green was eventually exonerated, but his life has been turned upside down by the accusations. His ex-wife went to court soon after his arrest and gained custody of their youngest child and his house. Mr. Green, who is disabled because of a degenerative disk disease, spent nine days in prison and three months in a ''bail hostel,'' or halfway house, and was allowed only supervised visits with his daughter.

''There's some little sicko out there who's doing this,'' Mr. Green said, ''and he's ruined my life. I've got to fight to get everything back.''

He said he had no clue how the rogue software showed up on his computer. ''I never download anything. and as far as I knew, no others had,'' he said.

While the Green case was resolved relatively quickly, the Amero case in Connecticut dragged on for about four years. From a report at Wired:

Accused of letting impressionable students see pornographic pictures as she browsed the web in her classroom, former Connecticut school teacher Julie Amero dodged felony charges last Friday by agreeing to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor charge and surrendering her state teaching credentials, according to the Hartford Courant.

But if a soon-to-be released forensic report about her hard drive is accurate, Amero's guilty plea is hardly justice – since the school computer had adware, the anti-virus software on the computer had been discontinued, and the technical testimony at her trial was amateurish and flawed.

Julie Amero
 Amero, a substitute teacher in Norwich, Connecticut, was arrested after students in her class reported that they'd seen pornographic images on her computer screen on Oct. 19, 2004. Amero said the computer wouldn't stop sending pop-ups and that she didn't know what to do with the computer.
In January 2007, she was convicted of four felony pornography charges and faced up to 40 years in prison.

Computer-forensics experts came to Amero's aid, attempting to correct what they feared a court had botched. From an article at the Hartford Courant:

The state of Connecticut spent two years investigating before it won a speedy conviction of Julie Amero -- the infamous Norwich porn teacher -- this January.

But it was never as tidy as the Norwich Public Schools, the Norwich police, the state of Connecticut and the Norwich Bulletin newspaper made it seem.

In truth, Amero, a clumsy computer novice, was the victim of malicious software that took over the PC in the classroom where she was substituting on Oct. 19, 2004. Since Amero's arrest, the state has refused to even consider this possibility.

Then, a few weeks ago, as Amero faced sentencing, Assistant State's Attorney David J. Smith filed a startling motion in Superior Court:

"The state has not completed a full examination of all the issues which may affect its position at the sentence hearing."

Translation: We were wrong. We are trying to figure a CYA way out of this mess.

How did the truth come out. The Courant explains:

Thankfully, a team of computer security experts from throughout the country, drawn to the case by outraged Internet bloggers and a handful of journalists, has presented Smith and his bosses with the truth.

Amero didn't click on the porn. Software that might have blocked the porn was months out of date. Critical evidence was mishandled. School and police computer "experts" who testified were woefully ignorant about computer security and porn spyware to the point that their testimony was blatantly false.

The state's case began unraveling soon after the hapless jury voted to convict. A firestorm of pressure -- from university professors and software executives to programmers -- forced repeated postponements of Amero's sentencing.

But never underestimate public officials when they are cornered. When Amero is finally sentenced, expect a deal that keeps the egg off the many faces behind this sham trial.

Inevitably, Amero will be exonerated. We all deserve an apology for this insulting case.

As the Courant predicted, the case ended with a whimper, as Amero pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct.


Anonymous said...

The teacher in CT should have had one hell of a lawsuit against the school district that gave her that crappy, bug-infested laptop.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a hacker targeted the guy in England. I wonder why.

Anonymous said...

Substitute teaching. Don't know how they get anybody to do that job.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but I wonder what you think of Doug Jones' claim that Mueller report won't amount to much and that he (Jones) will be re-elected in 2020.

legalschnauzer said...

@12;05 --

Glad you asked. First, we know Jones is an arrogant prick. We've published audio evidence of that here at LS, and the article you reference provides more evidence -- showing disrespect toward his possible opponents, etc. As for the Mueller report, Jones might be right about that; I'm trying to tamper down my own expectations for the report and have been for months. On the other hand, I think Jones is engaging in wishful thinking. He hopes the Mueller report doesn't amount to much because that would help his Republican supporters. As for re-election, I think Jones is talking out of his hat -- unless, of course, he plans more electoral subterfuge like the Dry Alabama campaign used against Roy Moore.

legalschnauzer said...

Here is URL to ABC News report on Doug Jones that is referenced above:


Anonymous said...

Here is I read Doug Jones' comments:

(1) He believes Trump and his associates have done very little wrong, have done little to violate the law (and Dems should remember this at election time); or

(2) Our justice system is too incompetent to hold a criminal White House accountable, which he seems to almost sound amusing.

Either way, I sense a guy who has very little respect for the rule of law and is very cynical about the notion of justice.

legalschnauzer said...

@6:26 --

You make a very astute comment. Jones cares nothing about justice or the rule of law. In fact, he has gone out of his way to ensure justice is NOT realized in Alabama. You can ask Don Siegelman about that.

Here is URL to post with audio that shows the same smarmy, smart-alecky tone that Doug Jones presents in that ABC interview. We've heard this crap from him for years. And we know Doug is a "justice game player," the kind who charged Don Siegelman $300,000 and did virtually nothing on his case:


Anonymous said...

If prosecutors examined the computers in these porn cases, why couldn't they tell the machines were filled with bugs?

legalschnauzer said...

@6:56 --

Great question. It's possible they saw the bugs and chose not to make it known. To reveal the existence of viruses on the machines would have ruined their cases, and they want arrests and guilty pleas, not justice.

Anonymous said...

For those who would like to see the real, smarmy Doug Jones in black and white, here is my attempted interview with him about whether, as U.S. attorney, he covered up insurance fraud by Paul Bryant Jr.:

Jones: I'm trying to make sure you understand that I have read your stuff, I have seen your conspiracy theories, and I am not going to answer any of your questions because I don't trust what you will write, period.

Legal Schnauzer (LS): I'm taking it down word for word. . . . I'm asking you, who called off the investigation of Paul Bryant?

Jones: I am not going to respond to any of your questions.

LS: You were a public official then, Doug . . .
Jones: I am not going to respond to any of your questions. . . . I've seen the garbage you write and the way you spin and the way you slant. It's the most disingenuous stuff I've ever seen. . . . It just doesn't matter to me. You're a nothing to me."

e.a.f. said...

Jones said he doesn't think the Mueller probe will amount to much?????
Gee, when I watch C.B.C. here in Canada they report a number of people have pled guilty, gone or going to jail all as the result of the Mueller inquiry/probe. has anyone asked Jones how that amounts to "not much".

40 yrs in jail for a first offence which isn't murder of several people? To get 40 years in Canada, you need to have murdered several people in one event. Those jail terms in the U.S.A. are simply ridiculous. you do have to wonder what happened to all that Christian forgiveness they keep talking about.....

Computer hackers can put just about anything on any one's computers or do people forget about kids, back in the day hacking into national computer systems, for fun.

legalschnauzer said...

e.a.f. --

Thanks for your insights. For clarity's sake, here are Jones' exact words, as reported by ABC News:

Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, a former prosecutor, said he doubts that the long-awaited report from special counsel Robert Mueller’s office will be the "blockbuster" that many of President Donald Trump’s critics are hoping for.

On the other hand, Jones said, he also doubts that the report will contain "information that's going to exonerate a lot of people, as the president's supporters would suggest and would hope."