Monday, January 29, 2007

A Tale of Teacher Held Responsible for Bad Computers

This email appear on a security mailing list that I belong to. The company writing the email and assisting in this teachers defense is one of the world's foremost security software manufacturers. The question it poses is this: Given that Windows 98 computers cannot be secured from becoming completely taken over by malware and hackers and given that the school district didn't supply the teacher with anything better, should this teacher be liable for pornographic pop-ups on the computer and potentially spend 40 years in prison? The prosecution says that the teacher had to visit a pornographic site to get the trojan bomb that caused the incident. The defense says because the computer is Windows98 with an old version of Internet Explorer on it, the infection could have come from anywhere, anytime without any user interaction.

Many of you have been following the plight of Julie Amero, the hapless substitute teacher in Norwich, CT who is facing up to 40 years in prison for having porn popups on a classroom computer. According to the defense's forensic expert, the popups were spawned by a javascript bomb on her machine. (If you want to catch up on this story, Brian Krebs wrote a good overview, and you can also read my editorial. Links and and We actually have an image of the drive here at our offices and are performing our own forensic analysis of it. The results will be available to interested parties in the next few days. Sentencing is on March 2nd, and a number of concerned industry folks are lobbying on her behalf. (A lot of work is also going in to getting her good pro bono representation for the appeals process. But the appeals process can be an iffy one itself.) We have been very active on this case, talking to the defense, the prosecution, the expert forensic witness and Julie herself. To us, it's clear this is a grave miscarriage of justice. Due to some legal technicalities, quite a bit of exonerating evidence (such as the fact that the machine was loaded with spyware) was not allowed as testimony in the trial. There was also false testimony in the trial (such as the statement that "Julie had to have navigated to these sites"). The police used inadequate software for their analysis (ComputerCops Professional) and seem to continue to stick by their story that Julie navigated to these sites, despite all the physical evidence pointing to the fact that these were popups. The machine in question was an old Win 98SE machine running IE 5, with no antispwyare protection, an old antivirus program (Cheyenne), an expired content filter, no desktop firewall, no popup blocking and (according to the forensic expert), no or few patches installed. It was a disaster waiting to happen. We've also found a number of disturbing issues in the case which point to a typical "small town" witchunt. A lot of this I'd rather not speak of publicly, but there's quite a few troubling allegations that I've heard. Some industry people are considering taking out a full page advertisement in the local paper, asking for the prosecution and the judge to consider all the facts in the case, including the new information that has come out post-trial. The letter will be written in such a fashion that would allow a wide range of signatories to the document. If you are interested in possibly signing the letter, please contact me off-list. Also, I will see about setting up a temporary mailing list for this case for those who want to take an active part in the case. Any help is appreciated.
And if anyone is going to RSA, I hope to see you there.


Alex Eckelberry

Sunbelt Software

Our own Ted, father of two young pre-school children says:

If the events happened exactly as the story says, then this is a truly sad indictment of our legal system. It shows how unready for technology our society really is. If the computer was as un-updated as it says, then the school and school district should be at fault. Not just for the pop-ups that appeared, but for using tools that are so outdated that they are no longer valid for teaching students. Maybe that school still supplies an Abacus to each student rather than the trendy calculator. I would also ask the school to pay for my laundry bills incurred from using the Quill and Ink writing utensils that they recommend.

Ted Kinczkowski

Having worked in school districts all over the Country I can tell you with certainty that teachers are unprepared for computer use the classroom. As I travelled the Country I found that teachers were in general the least computer literate professionals I've ever encountered and school districts did not understand, nor have the funds available to make the computing environment safe, secure and sometimes even functional for students and teachers. It was the norm that students knew more about computers than the teachers and this at the elementary school level! Keeping computers up to date is essential for our schools and I think part of the crime here is that a school district left students exposed to such insecure and outdated equipment. In computer years, Ted is correct. Windows98 is like the abacus and you can't expect much from students or teachers when you don't provide the right tools for the job.

Amy Babinchak


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