Pop-Up Crackdown Update

Back in January, Radley Balko relayed the case of Julie Amero--a Connecticut substitute teacher convicted of exposing some middle school kids to pornographic pop-up ads. Amero claimed, plausibly, that she did not will the ads to appear and had no desire to permanently scar her pre-adolescent students with images of naked humans. After she was convicted, someone bothered to check out the computer, and discovered--surprise!--spyware.

Thanks in part to a sustained Internet campaign in her defense, Amero was yesterday granted a retrial. The "incident" took place in October 2004; her retrial should take place sometime this year. With any luck, moral panic will have ruined a mere three years of her life.

What lesson should we take from this sad tale of prosecutorial excess and computer illiteracy? Amero's lawyer explains: "The lesson from this is we are all at the whims of these computers."

Happy Internet Safety Month!

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    No, we live at the whim of the State.

  • ||

    Amero's lawyer explains: "The lesson from this is we are all at the whims of these computers."

    With such an insightful lawyer, it's shocking that she was convicted during her first trial.

  • Fluffy||

    No, the lesson here is: Fuck other people's kids.

    If you see a lost child in the street, run the other way as fast as you can.

    This woman learned that if you stand near other people's kids, you are taking a chance of being caught up in a random wave of hysteria.

  • ||

    It's a very strange time to be alive - IT and the WWW are ubiquitous, but the most of the people in positions of government authority are close to being computer-illiterate.

    This type of technological mismatch is only going to get worse as the pace of innovation increases.

  • ||

    joe -
    I completely agree.

  • ||

    Exhibit A: Ted Stevens

  • PintofStout||

    joe,
    Does that mean government authority will become obsolete?

  • Christopher Monnier||

    > This type of technological mismatch is only going to get worse as the pace of innovation increases.

    Hence the need to divorce those in authority positions from having any power over technology.

  • ||

    Fluffy,

    HA. It's funny cause it's true. It's not funny for the same reason.

  • ||

    If this woman had "accidentally" run over those poor precious little children in a school crossing, would you say, "Oh, that's all right; she didn't really mean to do it. Besides, she's just not a very good driver."

    *How'd I do, Dan?

  • ||

    "Amero's lawyer explains: 'The lesson from this is we are all at the whims of these computers.'"

    Who is Amero's lawyer, Gary Numan?

  • ||

    It was alright, even if she had gone to prison, maybe she could have just gotten sent home under house arrest for a "medical condition." It's all the rage among the jailbird jetset these days!

  • ||

    This is a puzzling case - after all, despite what you think about the government, it does appear that she was convicted by a jury of her peers, who I guess were not so quick to believe that it must have been spyware.

    I also can't help but wonder why nobody on Amero's legal team bothered to check the computer for spyware either before the trial.

    Are we really supposed to beleive that the defense, the prosecution, the police, and the jury had never heard of malicious spyware that produces pop-up ads?

  • ||

    [S]he did not will the ads to appear. . . .



    Meaning that she could have "willed" ads to appear? What is she, a Jedi?

    joe,

    During my short stint in D.C. and as a former e-commerce consultant of sorts to state and federal governments, my one major observation is that governments at all levels have real trouble with technology, especially when it came to predicting which way to jump. We typically advised officials to avoid massively buying into new technologies. Not that they listened, of course.

    Honestly, this isn't even a political observation. I suppose it would be possible to have a technologically literate government. Some states seem to do fairly well with their use and regulation (to the extent that there is any) of the web. Go figure.

  • ||

    Dan T.,

    From what I read about the case when it happened, that sounds about right--no one took that possibility seriously. And, of course, even if that point were raised, there's a big difference between hearing about something and understanding it. Kind of like presenting DNA evidence to a jury in the southern parts of California.

  • ||

    Pro Lib: If that's the case, then I agree that another trial is warranted.

    Although I'm not a big fan of the "hey, we thought of a new defense, can we try this one" approach to justice.

  • ||

    How glorious it would be if they could track down the spyware company that caused the pornographic popup and sue the hell out of them. I know, it isn't feasible or smart, but if I ever met a person who admitted to working for a spyware company, I would punch that person so hard in the dick that they'd pee out of a hole in their back.

  • steveintheknow||

    Yeah a jury convicted her, but this never should have gone to court in the first place. Charges never should have been filed. The police, the judge, District Attorney, I don't know, someone should have thrown it out, or played their role in said throwing.

    And the second trial should not exist either. This is stupid.

  • ||

    By the way, Dan T., a good lawyer will always pick the most idiotic, uneducated, downright stupid jury they can. The only person who gets a jury of his peers is a stupid, uneducated idiot.

  • ||

    From what I read about the case when it happened, that sounds about right--no one took that possibility seriously. And, of course, even if that point were raised, there's a big difference between hearing about something and understanding it. Kind of like presenting DNA evidence to a jury in the southern parts of California.

    In this instance, the CT State Police computer expert testified that any links that appeared in her history must have been deliberately clicked as that's the only way the could get there.

    Now, if I were on such a jury, I'd have groaned at such an idiotic statement by a guy who draws his paycheck as a "forensic computer expert" and voted to acquit. Others (e.g. my parents, most of the people in my office)who wouldn't know any better would simply accept the word of the expert at face value.

  • ||

    I seem to remember (i.e. grain of salt time) reading something about the defense not being allowed to demonstrate to the jury how it could have happened without the teacher's involvement. A conviction by a jury of ones peers doesn't mean much if the defense isn't allowed to present the evidence.

  • ||

    Others (e.g. my parents, most of the people in my office)who wouldn't know any better would simply accept the word of the expert at face value.

    True, true. My office people would be all over that shit. They know what to fear by name (viruses, spyware, identity theft, etc.) but have positively no idea how the internet works, what the risk factor is, etc. When a computer does something unexpected, adults immediately assume it's a "virus" and blame the children and accuse them of "putting something on their computer."
    Fortunately, they also recognize their ignorance and rightfully concede the authority to regulate that which they don't understand (NOT!)

  • ||

    By the way, Dan T., a good lawyer will always pick the most idiotic, uneducated, downright stupid jury they can. The only person who gets a jury of his peers is a stupid, uneducated idiot.

    Maybe that's true, but they do have the benefit of actually hearing the testimony instead of reading about it second-hand.

    But really, I do agree that if the teacher is the victim of spyware/popups then she should not be punished. I'm just not sure it's safe to jump to that conclusion when it's been proven otherwise, at least for now.

  • ||

    I want to live in a society where adults can accept and deal with the fact that their children are acquainted with gay midget porn.

  • Episiarch||

    As absurd as this prosecution is, I am always amazed how it does not occur to many people to just kill the power to the computer. That sort of stops everything in its tracks (unless it's Skynet).

    That's irrelevant, though. This prosecution is so malicious that it borders on inconceivable. Does the prosecutor really think that this woman was trying to expose her students to porn? For what possible reason?

    Just another example of an out-of-control prosecutor, and a frightening taste of how much this must happen to people who have neither the resources or blogstorms to bring it to light.

  • Lupito41||

    It seems this woman clearly does not deserve to be punished, since she was uneducated in how to deftly avoid and vanquish pop-ups, but if her iron started smoking or her toaster started oozing magma, would she not just unplug it?

    Again, not a legal issue. I just wonder where the disconnect is between (usually) benign appliances and our new computer overlords.

  • Lupito41||

    Nice simulpost. I am clearly a slow typist.

  • VM||

    UNPLUG IT!!!

    (neener neener Lupito41 - I'm slower!!!)

  • ||

  • ||

    David,

    Yes, but the fact that you know more about computers than the state computer expert makes you ineligible to serve on this jury. And that makes perfect sense.

  • Fluffy||

    As far as killing power to the computer, from reading press accounts it is my understanding that she had been instructed to never, ever, ever turn the computer off.

    It's all very Brazil.

  • Rhywun||

    What lesson should we take from this sad tale of prosecutorial excess and computer illiteracy?

    Block all ads and never submit to the guilt trips laid by webmasters?

    If you see a lost child in the street, run the other way as fast as you can.

    Soooooo true. I avoid children by instinct, but today's climate of hysteria just gives another reason to do so.

  • Lupito41||

    "...she had been instructed to never, ever, ever turn the computer off."

    So if she had also been *instructed* to never, ever, ever let children see gay midget porn, I assume her head would have exploded.

    Time to update the training manual.

  • bubba||

    Isn't it likely that the porn spyware was installed while she was doing something inappropriate with a government computer?

    She probably didn't get the spyware from surfing the school's website.

    It also seems surprising that this was the first incident. Did she not report prior pop ups to IT?

  • Dave W.||

    Kind of like presenting DNA evidence to a jury in the southern parts of California.

    The Kathryn Johnston case has taught us nothing. I mean, I don't think the LA cops really did plant the evidence. However, I do think it is reasonable and correct for people in certain parts of Rampart era LA to believe what they did, especially when they were supposed to rely only upon the evidence presented in court, rather than the full panoply of media watchdogedness us non-jurors had the advantage of.

    that is the problem when police plant evidence -- there will always be reasonable doubt.

  • ||

    bubba -
    True, but then again, you're assuming that anyone involved in this skuffle is intelligent

  • Chucklehead||

    Dunno if the article mentions it since I'm too lazy to read it, but on the news this morning (I live in CT, so this was newsworthy) the reporter said that the school didn't have any firewalls installed on any of their computers at the time.

  • ||

    FIREWALLS! Of course! I knew I forgot a couple of buzzwords that adults know but have no idea what they do, etc.

  • ||

    "Isn't it likely that the porn spyware was installed while she was doing something inappropriate with a government computer?"

    Yep, and we are only innocent until proven likely to have done something innappropriate.

  • ||

    This is a puzzling case - after all, despite what you think about the government, it does appear that she was convicted by a jury of her peers, who I guess were not so quick to believe that it must have been spyware.

    The defense had planned to fully demonstrate to the jury how it wasn't her fault, by replicating the actions that caused the popups in court. Unfortunatly, in an amazing coincidence, the courtroom internet which normally works, stopped functioning a few minutes before the defense was supposed to make the demonstration.

    I also can't help but wonder why nobody on Amero's legal team bothered to check the computer for spyware either before the trial.

    Because they were not allowed to do so. Not until there was enourmous public outrage about the verdict.

    Are we really supposed to beleive that the defense, the prosecution, the police, and the jury had never heard of malicious spyware that produces pop-up ads?

    No, it is a matter of record that the prosecution and police deliberatly misinformed the jury that malicious spyware cannot produce pop-up ads. It is also a matter of record that the defense was forbidden from demonstrating otherwise.

  • ||

    She was a substitute teacher. Whatever inappropriate stuff was done on that computer is likely to have been done before she ever set foot in that classroom.

    Hell, I'd be surprised if computers being transferred from one teacher to another are wiped clean and the OS reinstalled. The IT staff probably just change the username from "Mr. Terwilliger" to "Mrs. Crumpleheim" (thus leaving any preexisting malware, child porn, etc. intact) and call it a day.

  • Chucklehead||

    Another buzzword I know, but don't really understand how it works, is asshat.

  • Episiarch||

    Inappropriate use is a red herring. Spyware can come from anywhere. Besides the fact that she was a sub, she could have previously been perusing a site for basket weaving and became infected.

    I can't even believe there is anyone, even Dan the T, who would support putting this woman in jail for 40 years for accidentally showing kids some nekkid chix. Even if it was caused by her browsing "inappropriately" beforehand.

    And to take this absurdity even further, if IT allowed the spyware to expire, why don't they prosecute them? How about they go after the principal for not making sure IT had installed a browser with pop-up blocking?

  • ||

    Sorry Chucklehead, I didn't mean for it to be directed at you.
    I could just hear all the adults I hang around being like "OH! No Firewalls! That's outrageous.. otherwise.. um...ummm.....IDENTITY THEFT!" and it got me excited :)

  • ||

    To continue to beat my dead, dead horse, if this was truly the miscarriage of justice that it appears to be, why no investigation, punishment, demotion, or taking away employee of the month parking space for:
    the government;s computer expert
    the cheif of police
    the prosector
    the judge

    It continues to amaze me how the legal system continues to be the one endevor with absolutely no quality control

  • Chucklehead||

    No worries Reinmoose.

    After my reactionary post, I realized I actually don't know how the hell a firewall works. Dammit.

    ;-)

  • wiki||

    But really, I do agree that if the teacher is the victim of spyware/popups then she should not be punished. I'm just not sure it's safe to jump to that conclusion when it's been proven otherwise, at least for now.

    ...huh? A retrial has been ordered, so the "proven results" have been thrown out.

  • ||

    Another example of why people like us should stop trying to duck jury service.

  • Dave W.||

    No, the lesson here is: Fuck other people's kids.

    No, the lesson here is to hire a good lawyer when you are in serious trouble. Maybe the state needs to pay for everybody to have good lawyers. Maybe the state needs to test more rigorously for smartness before letting people be lawyers, but the system doesn't work unless the defendant's lawyer has some brains.

    Lawyers and adversarial trials may be a bad, unfair system of justice, but like democracy itself, they are better than all the other realistic alternatives.

    If you get curable cancer, and hire a bad doctor, then you will die. If you get indicted for a crime for which you are innocent and hire a bad lawyer, you will go to jail.

    People like to think of lawyers as some kind of frivolous luxury who make no intellectual contributions. that is why they have a problem coming to grips with the real problem in this case (or the Cory Maye case for that matter).

  • ||

    I agree with most of your post, Dave W., but I don't find the adversarial aspect of the system to be the sine qua non of a just legal system.

  • Rhywun||

    Another example of why people like us should stop trying to duck jury service.

    As a computer programmer for an insurance company, I can't seem to get on a jury even if I somehow wanted to.

  • Scooby||

    In my past experiences with voir dire, anyone showing any hint of critical thinking is quickly discarded. I can't avoid "duck[ing] jury duty" without perjuring myself.

  • ||

    When I was about 3 years old my mother showed me books and pictures about sex and where I came from. I also saw a lot of good rated R movies with nice breasts and stuff. I can honstly say none of that stuff harmed me in anyway. Probably the opposite. ( I didnt see harddcore porn until I was like 12-13, fwiw).

    The idea that kids seeing nudity or showing 16 year ols Playboy( you know, that other case) is equivalent to molestation or some sort of physical sexual assault is absurd.

  • ||

    duck jury service

    Huh? Whu? Did I miss something? Sorry, I'm awake now. Put it on my bill.

  • TallDave||

    I blame Multivac, or, possibly, Deep Thought.

  • Brian||

    They didn't know pop-ups are caused by spyware? What, do they think she INSTALLED fucking pop-ups on purpose? I don't get it.

  • Jennifer||

    None of this makes sense until you realize that Connecticut is the Alabama of New Engoland, and Norwich is the Alabama of Connecticut. (I lived there my first year in the state.) I take heart in knowing that after this is over, the resulting lawsuits will make Julie Amero very, very rich.

    The school had no firewalls, its anti-spyware protection was long since expired, and it didn't even have installed any FREE protection on the computer. Also, Amero was specifically instructed by the teacher NOT to turn off the computer. According to a story I read, the porn happened after some kids tried logging on to what they thought was a Website about hairstyles, but apparently was a spyware portal (or whatever the term is). Furthermore, the kids themselves testified that she tried to make the damned pop-ups go away. Amero also asked people at the school to help her while this was going on, and nobody did.

    And the prosecution's expert witness claimed that pop-ups can't appear in your computer's history unless you specifically click on them, or type in the address.

  • ||

    Jennifer, I hate to say it, but any attempt by Amero to sue the gubbimint in this case will run into a big ol' wall of sovereign immunity, as well as qualified immunity for the individual bureaucratic fuck-ups. It'll never get to the jury.

  • ||

    "Another example of why people like us should stop trying to duck jury service."

    To expand on Scooby's 2:34 reply: How? By invoking the Fifth Amendment? You think a prosecuting attorney will let a total wild card like a libertarian on a jury, where they might, oh I don't know, decide the underlying law that the charge is based on should not be on the books and go for jury nullification? Or scare the defense attorney if their client did some statist stunt?

  • sedition||

    wired news has some good covereage, it appears that the school had no security system in place and the i.t manager testified against the teacher effectivley to cover his own arse

  • Dave W.||

    I agree with most of your post, Dave W., but I don't find the adversarial aspect of the system to be the sine qua non of a just legal system.

    Considered as a whole, the system may not that adversarial either. There is plea bargaining before the case goes to trial. If criminal cases are going to settle in a non-adversarial common-sense way, then they would do it at the plea bargaining stage. Many cases are simply dropped by the prosecutors at this stage. You just tend not to hear about them.

    Even if the defendant needs to go to trial, the defendant can opt for a judge trial, rather than a jury trial. In this case, the defnedant's atty needed to: (i) opt for a judge trial; and (ii) demonstrate the spyware on an actual machine for the judge. Judge ain't stupid. Judge trials are much less adversarial, and its where you go when you need a decider with half a brain.

    Adversarialness therefore, is not the sine qua non of the legal system because jury trials are not the sine qua non. Likewise, on the civil side, settlement negotiations are as "fake" and "staged" as trials. You get sensible compromises and this is where most disputes settle.

    I think jury trials can be improved. IIRC, here at HnR I have suggested spending parity rules. IIRC posters objected because: (i) expenses are hard for prosecutors to track; and/or (ii) expenses are easy for prosecutors to manipulate. I understand these objections, but don't agree that they seriously undercut the value of my proposed reform.

  • ||

    We need socialized justice!! 8)

  • Dave W.||

    Whoops: Likewise, on the civil side, settlement negotiations are not as "fake" and "staged" as trials. You get sensible compromises and this is where most disputes settle.

  • Robert||

    if I were on such a jury, I'd have groaned at such an idiotic statement by a guy who draws his paycheck as a "forensic computer expert" and voted to acquit.

    But if your knowledge of the subject had been known, you'd've been eliminated from the jury for cause. They say the rationale is that nobody on the jury should have any more knowledge than anyone else, because such jurors will tend to be listened to more by the other jurors, so their input won't be equal.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement