Civil Liberties

Deputizing the People

|

Several states are now considering laws that would impose criminal sanctions on IT workers who don't report suspected child abuse they find on clients' computers. In language that clearly indicates he knows very little about these "computer" thingies, New Britain, Conn. Sgt. James P. Wardwell warned:

"Computer usage is a very real part of our culture and daily activities. Laws must change and evolve to reflect this ever-changing technological advancement."

The problem of course is that in many jurisdictions mere possession of child porn images can fetch steep sentences . Sometimes intent doesn't even matter. But even when it does, it's clear that many times, the tech-ignorance of local authorities can railroad innocent people. And of course, as we've seen with similar laws aimed at photo lab technicians , innocent images can end up costing innocent people thousands of dollars, not to mention the blow to reputation that comes with being accused of child pornography.

I'd also gather that many (though admittedly not all) child pornographers—particularly those who create and distribute the stuff—are probably savvy enough to know not to bring their computers into Best Buy for repair.

Advertisement

NEXT: Slow News Monday: Germans, Dildos, and Intellectual Property

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.

  1. The problem of course is that in many jurisdictions mere possession of child porn images can fetch steep sentences .

    Idunno, yes that is a big problem, but seems to me that the problem here is opening the door to accusing people who “should have known/detected/found . . .” even if they had no suspicion or need to check any image file on the machine or anything else that would lead them to believe the user had contraban on his machine.

    At least that is the bad policy issue I hear shouting from this stupid politician ‘idea’.

  2. People want Bank of America to police for illegal immigrants, why not have computer people spying for the government, too? It’s a lot cheaper to require private citizens to enforce laws than it is to actually hire people. It’s totally ineffectual too, but at least politicians get some face time being tough on crime and take a position that does well in focus groups.

  3. In topic: a classic strip from the Perry Bible Fellowship homepage.

  4. I’ll just file this in the “Why I hate Americans” file.

  5. Seems like there would be a market for hard drives with a self destruct mechanism that has to be reset periodically. If nothing else, it could save you from a “Oh God, let me live long enough to hide the porn!” moment while having a heart attack.

  6. If nothing else, it could save you from a “Oh God, let me live long enough to hide the porn!” moment while having a heart attack.

    That is what your Porn Buddy is for.

  7. First, they made servers check IDs, and that seemed reasonable enough…

  8. “Computer usage is a very real part of our culture and daily activities. Laws must change and evolve to reflect this ever-changing technological advancement.”

    Evolve? Germany and Russia had this very system in place from at least the 1930’s through the 1980’s. Snitch on your neighbors or you’ll be the one we investigate.

  9. Seems like there would be a market for hard drives with a self destruct mechanism that has to be reset periodically. If nothing else, it could save you from a “Oh God, let me live long enough to hide the porn!” moment while having a heart attack.

    Start with iron chloride hexahydrate, aka, ferric trichloride hexahydrate. (I think that is the right ferric acid)

    On a USENET discussion years ago it was debated that a device could be rigged so that a hard drive could be flooded with this liquid and the resulting in the ferric coating on the platters going into solution impossible to reconstruct.

    Thermite was discussed, but there were so many stupid laws about explosive devices even then that it was rejected.

  10. I fix computers. I don’t routinely need, or want to scan the hard drive for questionable data/images… The data on a hard drive is absolutely the last place I’d look for, or ever find a problem. I fix broken operating systems, run virus scans and tweak the registry… no porn there… Can I charge the gvmnt my standard service rate to scan for naughty bits?

  11. This is a classic example of a sollution without a problem. First, as Balko points out, the people who are hardcore into this stuff are smart enough not to take their computer to best buy to get fixed. Second, comuter techs, when they find really bad child porn, already do turn people into the police. You would be surprised at the number of people that are dumb enough to take their child porn stash into get fixed. They are generally not hte hard core pervs but run of the mill people with a taste for that kind of thing. Irrate wives and computer tech people are already two fertile sources for police to stop this kind of thing. We don’t need a law. All this would do is cause computer people to always err on the safeside and report people for naked pictures of their 5 month old they are holding to embarass the hell out of them once they are a teenager and bring a boyfriend home. Further proof, as if any were needed, that politicians cannot be trusted with the power to make laws.

  12. When did regular people become more responsible for policing the populace than the actual police?

  13. When did regular people become more responsible for policing the populace than the actual police?

    Actually, that’s what the deal was before the police state came into vogue in the years leading to and following WWII. Generally a self-policing society.

  14. “self-policing” isn’t the same as “government-required policing.” Once the mandate comes from elsewhere, it isn’t “self” anymore. It’s more like Hugh Akston says above. Commies and Nazis snitching on each other to keep the secret police off their own backs.

  15. “In language that clearly indicates he knows very little about these “computer” thingies […]

    Just because they don’t understand computers, film, guns, moonites, recreational drugs, armored vehicles or dogs doesn’t mean a pol won’t ban it or support it. The idiots.

  16. “I’d also gather that many (though admittedly not all) child pornographers-particularly those who create and distribute the stuff-are probably savvy enough to know not to bring their computers into Best Buy for repair.”

    I think this is probably not true.

    First, we know of several cases where people have been caught with porn (sometimes child, more often simply normal porn at inappropriate places such as on a work computer) specifically because they felt no such compunction about calling tech support.

    Second, I suspect in general that people who have computers repaired are assuming that the repair person is not going to need to delve several layers down in their folders structure to look at their personal photos (whether pornographic or not) and is probably going to assume that he or she is safe from such a disclosure.

    When I hire a repairman to fix my plumbing, after all, I don’t assume he’s rifling through my magazine collection or family photos to see if I’ve got a hidden cache of porn.

    I think the innocent images issue is a major problem. For example, suppose a technician finds kids_in_bathtub.jpg on a computer. Does such a law mean they are required to view this to ensure this is not child porn? Assume it is just a picture of the kids in the bathtub…do they have to turn this in or risk facing a misdemeanor?

    Why stop at IT workers. Shouldn’t the cable installer be required to report if he sees child porn DVDs lying around while he’s in a home installing cable? I mean, why not just go to the logical outcome and make it a misdemeanor for *anyone* to fail to report suspect child abuse if such mandatory reporting mechanisms are such a great idea.

  17. “self-policing” isn’t the same as “government-required policing.” Once the mandate comes from elsewhere, it isn’t “self” anymore. It’s more like Hugh Akston says above. Commies and Nazis snitching on each other to keep the secret police off their own backs.

    Yep and I was talking about self policing the same way you are.

  18. So now some of the hours I’m paying $BigBuck$ per hour to get my computer repaired will be spent scanning for naughty pictures? Thanks a load, Congress.

    I’d also gather that many (though admittedly not all) child pornographers-particularly those who create and distribute the stuff-are probably savvy enough to know not to bring their computers into Best Buy for repair.

    1. I guess you think child pervs are smarter than the recent terrorist ring?

    2. Why wouldn’t they take the computers in? All they’d have to do is store the bad stuff on an extra hard drive connected to a USB port, and remember to leave that part home.

    When did regular people become more responsible for policing the populace than the actual police?

    Used to be when someone committed a crime you’d “raise the hue and cry” and folks would drop what they were doing and chase him down. Later this morphed into the sheriff calling out a posse. Many states still have laws requiring citizens to assist in law enforcement when needed. And we still serve on juries.

  19. How interesting that this post should come immediately after one that links to a Reason article about “bad Germans” (Stasi informants in East Germany) that contains these remarks about Commie spying:

    “In both Cuba and revolutionary Nicaragua, the governments created watch committees on every block. In Nicaragua they were called Committees for the Defense of Sandinismo; in Cuba, Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. They encouraged neighbors to engage in ‘revolutionary vigilance’–that is, to rat out one another for slaughtering an unauthorized pig or fondling an unauthorized sex organ, for changing money on the black market or smoking a joint, for having strangers in the house or coming home late, or anything else that seemed suspicious or contrary to the regime’s moral and political orthodoxies. Originally the committees had some sway over rations in the chronically short-of-supply countries, but even when their economies approached brain death and rationing broke down, there were no shortages of squealers, for precisely the reasons Funder listed–the bong buzz that some people get out of sticking it to a neighbor.”

  20. When did regular people become more responsible for policing the populace than the actual police?

    This would be fine, if we weren’t still paying for a whole bunch of actual police and their actual paramilitary toys.

  21. I recall a case where a Texas woman who took a photo of her breast-feeding her toddler was arrested under Child Pornography charges.

    There was a similar case where a mother who took a photo of her topless three-year-old daughter was investigated when the Wal-Mart photo-lab informed the local police.

  22. So now some of the hours I’m paying $BigBuck$ per hour to get my computer repaired will be spent scanning for naughty pictures? Thanks a load, Congress.

    Why worry about that? Best Buy just deletes the contents of the hard drive as a standard procedure anyway.

  23. BTW, most people, even technically savvy ones, don’t know this but formatting your hard disk or deleting a file will not erase all traces of it. It’s relatively easy for a knowledgeable person to reconstruct the data on a wiped drive.

  24. I’m with R C Dean: When do I get my SWAT gear?

  25. I thought those Geek Squad people were more apt to make porn rather than report it.

  26. Deus,

    You can by commercial programs that rewrite several times over your harddrive. I am told that it is still possible to get the data, but it takes some pretty high end equipment not normally available to law enforcment. But yes, you just reformat or worse yet just delete, getting the stuff back is pretty easy.

  27. I think the opposite situation should exist:

    It should be possible to bind a third-party tech support person contractually to prevent them from looking at any data, document, image, etc. on your hard drive that is not connected to whatever issue they’re working on.

  28. The article doesn’t clarify something important: are technicians only required to report something that they come across, or are they potentially liable for material that’s there even if they don’t come across anything. For instance, a technician reconstructing a hard drive might come across personal files in the course of his work, but perhaps not every file. If the owner of the drive is convicted on other evidence, is this technician liable for failing to report what he didn’t see? And how would the government prove he saw it? I don’t think it’s so controversial that a witness to a crime should report it, but it _is_ highly relevant if this law creates incentives for technicians to snoop on people’s private files to cover their asses.

  29. MATT: Excellent points… As I stated b4 I rarely NEED to see the data and docs on a person’s pc to diagnose/repair/test. So anything I see generally would be coincidental.. In fact one of the things that has kept me in this business for so long is that I consider the data / docs none of my darned business (bosses like that )… I’ve got systems backed up to the basement door now with real issues (thank you Microsoft) I really don’t need more work… At one time I worked in-house for a company that wanted me to ‘report offensive files’, with no more direction than that. I came up with a three layer system… First time I’d just delete it and send a banal little note to the user referring to company policy.. nothing more.. second time, I’d email a direct notice that I found and deleted stuff.. third time…. well it never actually got that far…. I never found kid-pron but then again like I said, I never really looked that hard.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.