Teacher must still surrender license in bizarre 'exposure to porn' suit

A week after the close of the four-year case of Julie Amero, the Connecticut substitute teacher accused of exposing middle-students to online smut, Sunbelt Software CEO Alex Eckelberry doesn't see any real win in the settlement.

"What can I say," he shrugged during a conversation with BetaNews earlier this week concerning the final decision. Ms. Amero, a substitute teacher prosecuted on felony charges after a malware-infected computer in her classroom began spewing ads for adult entertainment sites, agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge, pay a $100 fine, and surrender her credentials to teach in the state of Connecticut. "I'm disappointed it ever got this far."

Eckelberry and a group of other computer professionals stepped in to aid Amero's defense team after prosecutors in Connecticut filed those charges. (PDF available here)

The incident occurred in October 2004. Parents of some students complained, and the school district contacted the police. To the dismay of forensics experts, the district was unable to provide firewall records or prove that any significant anti-malware protections were installed on Amero's machine, although she had been instructed never to shut it off. (A PDF is available describing the events in the classroom.)

Prosecutor David Smith and Norwich, Conn. police detective Mike Lounsbury ran a perfunctory test to see if the images in the pop-ups were cached in the computer, and promptly went to bat for conviction on risk of injury to a minor, or impairing the morals of a child.

The original trial, in which Amero was convicted on all counts and faced a maximum of forty years in prison, barred the defense from presenting expert testimony on how pop-ups work, and included bizarre tech claims by Lounsbury. For example: "When you link on a link, again, links are Javascripted, you click on a link, it changes color..."

A cynical observer might think that the whole incident is a case of two small-town politicos gunning for a pass to a State Legislative seat or the like, but Eckelberry is perhaps more kind. "I'm talked to David Smith. I think he really believes that [Amero] is a lesbian. Lounsbury really does; in his world, she was sitting there fondling herself in front of the students."

(Ms. Amero is married to Mr. Wes Amero; at the time of the computer incident and her arrest, she was pregnant after years of fertility treatments, but miscarried soon after the legal uproar began.)

Eckelberry notes that mistakes were made by both the prosecution and the defense, but overall the investigation was made far more difficult when the school district was unable to provide correct information about its computers and network. However, the experts were provided a disk image of sorts, and were able to discern some things from it.

The researchers found that the machine in question was running Windows 98, upgraded at some point from Windows 95. The machine was running an anti-virus program that had been discontinued by the company about six months earlier (Cheyenne AntiVirus / Inoculate IT, offered by Computer Associates). The clock on the machine was incorrectly set, so discerning what happened when wasn't possible.

In contrast to the volunteer experts' deliberate work on the evidence available, it's clear that neither the prosecution nor the defense were particularly tech-competent. The Norwich police department didn't have much in the way of investigative skills for computer-related crime, and the software they used to evaluate the computer could only say that images were in the cache, not how they got there.

The IT manager for Norwich Public Schools, Bob Hartz, was also lacking skills, claiming that the machine's virus protection was updated "weekly" and that he'd never heard of adware or spyware generating porn pop-ups, or of mousetrapping.

Amero was also no computer pro; she believed that turning off the computer's monitor (which would have kept the kids from seeing the pop-ups and perhaps avoided all the trouble) was equivalent to shutting down the machine. And Eckelberry says that the trouble that day most likely started when Amero confused her browser's address bar with a search engine's text-entry form -- Amero typed in "new hairstyles," the NewDotNet-infected PC redirected her to a problematic site, and the wild rumpus began.

"I can tell you one thing," he emphasizes. "She did not sit down at that computer that morning looking for porn."

And now? As for Amero, Eckelberry thinks that the strain of the long ordeal -- "a precipitous decline, mental and physical" -- was reason enough for Amero to take the deal, since "at least it isn't a felony."

More broadly, there's The Julie Group, named for this tale's protagonist. Its mission is "to bring attention to those situations where injustice is being done through the misuse or misunderstanding of computers and computer forensics; and second, to prevent future injustice wherever we are able."

And who knows, says Eckelberry -- even the years-long denouement of this sorry case may lead to justice for others down the road.

"I think this case helped," he says, "I really do. I think it raised awareness, and without [the attention] nothing would have happened."

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