It was a perfect storm of almost farcical proportions. Almost anything that could go wrong, did go wrong: Kids who exaggerated what they saw on Julie Amero’s screen. A school principal who overreacted and called the cops when an administrative rebuke would have been sufficient. An IT administrator who was dangerously out of touch. A DA who overreached in applying a felony charge to what was at worst a misdemeanor. A police computer forensics “expert” who was anything but, and a defense expert who was even worse. And Amero herself, more clueless about technology than the students she was supposed to teach.
As with many subjects, background is needed and this one needs as much as any. Moreover, this is probably one of the most important issues for anyone who is involved in education. If you are a Teacher, Administrator or have a child in a school, you need to understand this issue. The issue is the application of the Internet in our classrooms and policies towards the use of technology in our schools.
I became aware of Julie Amero’s case and situation a few years ago actually after taking security courses at college. It was jarring, to say the least, but not surprising. It was a case of all parties involved not having a clue about technology, a clue about the Internet and fear. It was a story of people in power, not understanding technology. Moreover, it was a story of overreaction by those in power who did not understand what they were dealing with.
One day at school…
On October 19, 2004, Julie Amero was a substitute teacher who had just come to work, another teacher had logged her into the classroom computer, as she had no login id. She left the room to use a bathroom, when she came back to her horror, pornography images had begun popping up and never stopped. She tried to stop them but as she did more and more and more replaced each one. Instead of doing what most would have done, which was power off the computer, she told the Vice Principle of the incident. She did not turn off the computer, because she had no knowledge of computers, and it was against school policy. She had sought out help during the day, but was told pop-ups were normal; No one ever came to her aid to help. She also turned the monitor away from students eyes, but this was to no avail. She would let the Principle know of the issue the next day.
Once students let their parents know of the issue the situation exploded. Julie found herself charged and looking at real jail time.
What went wrong
In the beginning of the investigation no care was paid to what caused the porn pop-ups to start. As far as investigators and the school were concerned, Julie had been surfing porn sites all day and exposed minors to pornographic material. The truth was far from that simple.
Not because of the district, or investigator intervention, but outside of the school district the real truth came out. The school IT Administrator never updated the anti-virus software, which was a trial version of the software. The network also did not have a proper firewall. The cause of the porn pop-ups was discovered to be the work of malware, which upon activation would non-stop flood the computer with porn images.
The school did not have the knowledge, nor had a qualified professional in their IT department. The school was also looking to wash their hands of the matter. The detective who investigated the case had little understanding of Browser technology and relied upon network security experts who could not prove Julie had intentionally caused the pop-ups. In the end Julie was initially found guilty in her court case and facing a prison sentence of 40 years. It wasn’t until an outside security expert stepped in and proved that the prosecution had overlooked a lot of facts in pursuit a conviction.
In the end Julie was granted a new trial, ending with a disorderly conduct guilty plea, $100 fine and had to forfeit her teaching credentials.
Lessons not learned
When I first discovered the case and read through all the opinions I was as outraged as many others were. There was so many things that came together to create a perfect storm of fallacies in this case. If it were not for an outside security expert doing voluntary work, the facts of the case would have never come to the light of day. It also highlighted to me that we still have those in power who do not have the basic understanding on technology and what can be done to innocent people through malware.
Almost 15 years ago one of my friends went through a nearly similar incident. Now his incident was not dealing with pornography, but something as serious. His friend had hacked into the New Jersey State Police and proceeded to give all the police officers records. The investigation led to the police interviewing my friend about software he gave his friend at the time. This software could be used for illegal activity, but at the time its favored use was to ping computers to find out connection speeds for game servers. Because my friend had given the software to his friend, police were interested in the software and what it was used for. My friend co-operated and gave them all the information they needed. At first the police told my friend that he was in no trouble being he had co-operated and did not do the hacking personally. A week later the police decided the rules had changed and my friend was now an accessory to the crime. Being a minor, he was given probation and community service.
What I learned then was that those in authority did not have a grasp on technology, nor how it worked. A decade after my friends community service, the case of Julie Amero proved that those in power still didn’t understand the technology they were dealing with. Not even Julie herself understood how a computer worked, or how to turn off the computer.
What prosecutors failed to see was that they were dealing with malware that was a Porn Trap. That is malware that is intended to infect the computer with a Internet browsing history of porn websites. For those that may ask why such malware would exist, this malware could be used to destroy someone’s career in any public position from educators to politicians. As seen with Julie it almost did. This is one of the reasons I am never quick to judgment when reading stories about people caught with child-porn or similar situations. Unless there is substantial, concrete evidence, you can never be sure about guilt or innocence.
Still not getting it
On Friday I plan on going to into detail with what is happening in our own local schools with this issue and how it can possibly happen to any parent or educator in our schools today.