Security pros work to undo teacher's conviction
'This machine should not have been on the Internet'
Researchers led by the head of a Florida anti-spyware firm aim to recreate what caused a Connecticut school's classroom computer to start displaying pornographic pop-ups in October 2004, an incident that recently led to four felony convictions for the substitute teacher involved.
This was a Windows 98 SE machine with IE 5 and an expired antivirus subscription. It hadn't been update since August, and there was no anti-spyware, no pop-up protection, no firewall and no content filters. Regardless of whatever happened, this machine was a machine that should not have been on the Internet.
On January 5, a six-person jury found former Kelly Middle School substitute teacher Julie Amero guilty of four counts of risk of injury to a minor. The charges stem from an October 19, 2004 incident when the computer in the classroom in which Amero was teaching started displaying pornographic pop-up advertisements. Prosecutors argued that Amero surfed porn sites while in class, causing the pop-up advertisements, while the former teacher's defense attorney argued that spyware installed from a hairstyling Web site caused the deluge of digital smut.
The case has attracted an enormous amount of interest, because the reported details of the trial appear to indicated that a lack of understanding of the technology involved and not solid digital evidence, led the jury to convict the teacher.
Alex Eckelberry, president of anti-spyware firm Sunbelt Software, hopes to put the case to rest. Armed with an image of the disk from the Windows 98 SE computer, the technology expert put out a call to interested security researchers and assigned his own workers to the case.
"We have had huge offerings of support from the security community," Eckelberry said this week. "Other experts in the forensics community--and these are not small players--have come to us and offered to help."
The criminal conviction would not be the first case of misunderstood technology leading to a guilty verdict. In 2002, a 29-year-old network adminstrator was convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for sending 5,600 e-mail messages to customers of his former employer--the now-defunct e-mail provider Tornado Development--warning about a security hole in Tornado's service that left private messages vulnerable to unauthorized access. The prosecutors in the case argued, and the judge agreed, that McDanel was guilty of unauthorized access and abused Tornado's e-mail 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.
"In technologically complicated cases, expert testimony is really important--more so then in your normal prosecutions," said Jennifer Granick, executive director of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University's School of Law and the attorney that defended McDanel in his appeal. "It is complicated for a normal person--the idea that the computer does something without your agency is not something that they understand."
In the latest case, a regular teacher logged into the classroom computer, because Amero did not have credentials. The substitute teacher was told not to log out or turn off the computer, according to media reports.
What happened after that has become the main point of contention.
A detective on the case using off-the-shelf recovery software argued that Amero clicked on pornographic Web links and caused the computer to display pornographic pop-up advertisements. However, the defense's forensic expert, Herbert Horner, stated that a more complete analysis showed that a harmless hairstyling Web site had actually redirected the PC's browser to pornographic sites, setting off the deluge of offensive ads.
Horner, the principal at Contemporary Computer Consultants, had walked into the courtroom to discuss his analysis but was prevented from doing so in detail because the prosecution argued that they had not had full disclosure of his testimony.
In an interview with SecurityFocus, Horner voiced obvious frustration at his inability to relate all his findings to the jury.
"It is kind of like you have a fire truck and a full tank of water and you can save everybody, but someone said you can't do that because the container you put the water in is against the rules," Horner said.
Prosecutors have also focused on the fact that Amero did not turn off the computer, though she did go for help during a class break, Horner said.
Both the prosecutor in the case, state attorney David J. Smith, and Amero's attorney, John F. Cocheo, declined to comment for this story, prior to the sentencing hearing on March 2. The public filings in the case could not obtained in time for this article.
The team of security professionals analyzing the forensic evidence are not yet ready to release an opinion, but one thing is clear, Eckelberry said: The classroom's machine was infested with spyware and the school did not have adequate protections in place.
It's an issue that has refocused some of the debate on administrators at Kelly Middle School. School officials recently told parents that the incident could never happen today, because the district has installed security software and a filtering system.
"This was a Windows 98 SE machine with IE 5 and an expired antivirus subscription," Eckelberry said. "It hadn't been updated since August, and there was no anti-spyware, no pop-up protection, no firewall and no content filters. Regardless of whatever happened, this machine was a machine that should not have been on the Internet."
This article originally appeared in Security Focus.
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