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Amero case spawns effort to educate

Julie Group seeks to avoid future wrongful convictions

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A group of security professionals, legal experts, and educators who helped former Connecticut substitute teacher Julie Amero overturn a conviction on charges of exposing her students to pornographic pop-up ads has formed a permanent organisation that aims to educate the courts and legislators about technology, crime, and digital forensics.

Taking the name of the person who brought them together, the members of the Julie Group intend to teach lawyers and end users about issues of technology and criminal law, lobby policy makers for fairness in criminal codes and regulations, and bring to light unfair prosecutions. The group will likely again offer their computer-security expertise to prosecutors and defense attorneys in future cases.

"Our helping Julie Amero was about two things: Getting Julie out of jail and making sure that something like this doesn't happen to other people," said Alexander Eckelberry, president of security firm Sunbelt Software. "We learned with Julie that giving people a voice makes a big difference."

On January 5, a six-person jury found Amero, a former substitute teacher at Kelly Middle School in Norwich, Connecticut, guilty of four counts of risk of injury to a minor, a Connecticut law that includes endangering a the morals of a minor. The charges stem from an incident on 19 October, 2004, when Amero's classroom computer started displaying pornographic pop-up advertisements.

Prosecutors argued that the images appeared because Amero visited porn sites while in class, while the former teacher's defense attorney argued that spyware installed from a hairstyling website caused the deluge of digital smut. The four convictions could have resulted in a maximum of 40 years in prison for the former schoolteacher.

Following the conviction, Eckelberry and others formed a group to analyse the evidence, producing a digital-forensics report that refuted many of the statements made by the prosecution's cybercrime expert, Mark Lounsbury, a detective with the Norwich Police Department, Eckelberry said.

The analysis was not straightforward. Other people, including the middle school's information technology administrator, had accessed the hard drive of the classroom's computer - a Windows 98 SE machine sporting Internet Explorer 5 and expired security software - following the pop-up incident.

Moreover, the investigators only gave the defense a copy of the files on the hard drive, not a bit-for-bit copy of the disk, said Joe Stewart, senior researcher for security firm SecureWorks and a member of the Julie Group's forensic analysis team.

"We had to go with what the prosecution gave to the defense," Stewart said. "You couldn't tell after the fact what had happened. You could tell that things were changed, but you couldn't tell how they were changed."

The security researcher hacked together a web server that could use the browser cache and temporary files to recreate the last web pages that appeared on the computer. The researchers used that and other digital forensics techniques to piece together some of what happened and refute the prosecution's interpretation of events.

The independent group's analysis of the classroom computer, and vocal criticism from technology professionals across the internet, convinced the prosecution to request its own digital forensics report from the state's crime laboratory. Following that analysis - and after delaying Amero's sentencing four times to allow any new evidence to be uncovered - the judge granted on 6 June a motion by the defense to overturn the verdict and allow a new trial.

"When the motion was accepted for a new trial, that was kind of a huge milestone for the group," said Sunbelt Software's Eckelberry. "You get a bunch of people together and this whole community thing is amazing."

The Amero case would not the first time that confusion about technology has led problematic prosecutions. In 2002, a 29-year-old network administrator was convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for sending 5,600 email messages to customers of his former employer - the now-defunct email provider Tornado Development - warning about a security hole in Tornado's service that left private messages vulnerable to unauthorised access.

The prosecutors in the case argued, and the judge agreed, that McDanel was guilty of unauthorised access and abused Tornado's email servers to send the messages. The prosecutors have since admitted their mistake and the case was overturned on appeal, but not before McDanel served 16 months in prison.

While such cases appear to account for a small number of prosecutions, the increased sophistication employed by bot masters and fraudsters in compromising victims' computer could mean that more muddled cases might be ahead.

"Thinking about the implications - that any teacher could get infected after going online, have porn show up on their computer, and go to jail for 40 years - that's bad," said SecureWorks' Stewart. "My own sister is a teacher and she is not that far from Norwich. This could happen to her."

The Julie Group has started forming committees to focus on different tasks and continues to be run as an all-volunteer organisation, Eckelberry said. The group has already started considering other cases.

This article originally appeared in Security Focus.

Copyright © 2007, SecurityFocus

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