The Viral Pedophile Attack

By Karla Fetrow

The Safety Net

We are a Nation of controls, regulated for our safety.  At the top of the manifest destiny for control features is the consideration for our children.  The propensity to put children first is the basic impulse of a loving parent.  Therefore, very few people raise objections to such safety features as seatbelt laws, preschool vaccinations, innocent exposure to second hand smoke.  These rules were designed to protect children from the poor value judgments of adults, and any objections can be guilt tripped out of existence.  What is disturbing however, is the growing trend to expand these controls to threaten and intimidate those who do not comply with the social order.  Confidentiality reports can no longer shield a counselor from reporting suspicion of abuse from a law enforcement agency.  Homes are disrupted more through poverty than violent episodes.  A new monster hangs over us; the threat of the Internet pedophile.

Internet predators are enough to make any parent shudder, and they should.  Although cultural differences have flexible laws as to the acceptable age for sexual maturity, loving parents don’t generally wish to see they children sexually exploited.  Responsible parents monitor their children’s activities, place parental controls on their computers and guide their children within their moral/ethical beliefs.  They are understandably upset if their children are electronically seduced through an Internet predator.  They are within their rights to take safeguards to prevent this and to pursue the offender.

A Question of Definitions

With the conception of the Internet and the free flow of information, there was no question as to the creation of laws that prosecuted predators of the innocent:  Federal laws have been enacted to protect children from people who lure or attempt to lure them into an offline meeting for the purpose of performing illegal sexual acts or coercing them to provide sexually explicit photos of themselves.

In April 2003, Congress passed a law that provides wiretapping authority for seven sexual offenses, including child pornography and the sexual exploitation of children. Part of a broader child-protection bill entitled the Protect Act of 2003, which also mandates the Amber Alert system for abducted children, this law expands federal law-enforcement agencies’ wiretapping authority to catch online predators before they strike.

Remaining in debate is what constitutes child pornography.  On April 16, 2002, the US Supreme Court over a congressional ban on virtual paedophilia.  It ruled the First Amendment protects pornography or other sexual images that only appear to depict real children engaged in sex. The judgment is a victory for both pornographers and legitimate artists such as filmmakers. They argued that a broad ban on simulated child sex could make it a crime to depict a sex scene like those in the recent movies Traffic or Lolita. The law was challenged by a trade association for pornographers.

According to “Cyber Rights & Cyber-Liberties, U.K,”, a non-profit civil liberties union, (the law) barred sexually explicit material that “appear(s) to be a minor” or that is advertised in a way that “conveys the impression” that a minor was involved in its creation. The law was Congress’ answer to then-emerging computer technology that allowed the computer alteration of innocent images of real children, or the creation from scratch of simulated children posed in sexual acts. The law was an expansion of existing bans on child pornography. Congress had justified the wider ban on grounds that while no real children were harmed in creating the material, real children could be harmed by feeding the prurient appetites of paedophiles or child molesters. The Free Speech Coalition, the pornographers’ trade group, said it opposes child pornography but that the law could snare legitimate, if unsavoury, films and photos produced by its members. The group did not challenge a section of the law that banned the use of identifiable children in computer-altered sexual images. The Clinton and Bush administrations defended the law in court.

Salem Would have been Proud

The phobia to protect children from the pedophile has produced a massive witch hunt into people’s lives, suspicion at every level and defamation of character.  A man who had produced his own business, lost his property, his license and his credibility after an investigation revealed his business partner had downloaded child pornography onto one of the two company computers.  While the man’s name was eventually cleared with the local law enforcement agency, his property was not returned and he was not reinstated within the business community.  He had lost thirty years of gainful employment over an activity he had known nothing about.

At twenty-three years of age, Jacob Woodward liked to spend his time on the computer downloading video games, movies and music.  The law came knocking at his door after he downloaded a music share file that contained pornographic photos of underage teenaged girls.  He explained that he had deleted the file, but the police department still confiscated his computer, his X-box, his Play Station and his cell phone for evidence.  During the investigation, social service employees called his parents and close relatives to advice them not to allow his underage siblings and cousins around him.  They were further warned that if they allowed Jacob contact with them, the children could be forcibly removed from their homes by the Division of Youth and Family Services.  Jacob was never officially charged, but his electronic equipment was not returned, and the damages in family relationships are still being mended.

These are common occurrences.  At any moment, about 20 million of the estimated 1 billion Internet-connected PCs worldwide are infected with viruses that could give hackers full control, according to security software maker F-Secure Corp. Computers often get infected when people open e-mail attachments from unknown sources or visit a malicious Web page. Personal computers are often used to traffic illegal child photography without the owner’s knowledge or consent.  They can be covered in share files or distributed as viruses.  Pedophiles can exploit virus-infected PCs to remotely store and view their stash without fear they’ll get caught. Pranksters or someone trying to frame you can tap viruses to make it appear that you surf illegal Web sites.

An Associated Press investigation found cases in which innocent people have been branded as pedophiles after their co-workers or loved ones stumbled upon child porn placed on a PC through a virus. It can cost victims hundreds of thousands of dollars to prove their innocence.

Their situations are complicated by the fact that actual pedophiles often blame viruses — a defense rightfully viewed with skepticism by law enforcement.

“It’s an example of the old ‘dog ate my homework’ excuse,” says Phil Malone, director of the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. “The problem is, sometimes the dog does eat your homework.”

The AP’s investigation included interviewing people who had been found with child porn on their computers. The AP reviewed court records and spoke to prosecutors, police and computer examiners.

One case involved Michael Fiola, a former investigator with the Massachusetts agency that oversees workers’ compensation.

In 2007, Fiola’s bosses became suspicious after the Internet bill for his state-issued laptop showed that he used 4 1/2 times more data than his colleagues. A technician found child porn in the PC folder that stores images viewed online.

Fiola was fired and charged with possession of child pornography, which carries up to five years in prison. He endured death threats, his car tires were slashed and he was shunned by friends.

Fiola and his wife fought the case, spending $250,000 on legal fees. They liquidated their savings, took a second mortgage and sold their car.

An inspection for his defense revealed the laptop was severely infected. It was programmed to visit as many as 40 child porn sites per minute — an inhuman feat. While Fiola and his wife were out to dinner one night, someone logged on to the computer and porn flowed in for an hour and a half.

Prosecutors performed another test and confirmed the defense findings. The charge was dropped — 11 months after it was filed.

The Fiolas say they have health problems from the stress of the case. They say they’ve talked to dozens of lawyers but can’t get one to sue the state, because of a cap on the amount they can recover.

“It ruined my life, my wife’s life and my family’s life,” he says.

The Massachusetts attorney general’s office, which charged Fiola, declined interview requests.

Don’t Blame it on Your Malware

Larry Magid at Cnet News states that it is indeed possible for malicious software to plant child pornography–or any other type of file, for that matter–on an innocent person’s computer, but being possible doesn’t mean it’s likely. And forensics experts can detect intention.

“It’s quite possible for a malware creator to include child pornography as part of the payload on an infected computer,” according to Symantec spokeswoman Marian Merritt, but “such payloads are not typical.”

Most malware authors, Merritt said, “are motivated by money, and there’s no clear indication as to  how planting child porn on an unsuspecting person’s computer would help generate money for criminals.”

According to the article, such forensics requires the confiscation and examination of the computer hard drive; an expensive operation that can take months to complete.  While downplaying the threat of a viral attack infecting your personal computer with child porn it advices:
* Making sure that your operating system and regularly used software are up-to-date.
* Using good software addressing malware, phishing attacks, and/or spam, and keeping it up to date. Subscriptions to paid programs should be renewed.
* Being cautious about spam and about providing information to sites you navigate to from links within even the most legitimate-appearing e-mails.

The Profits of the Pedophile Industry

A viral infection in a computer can be restored, often through several hundred dollars worth of software upgrading and a skilled technician; an infected reputation cannot.  A conscientious citizenry can protect its children from sexual exploitation, a citizenry with no legal protections of its own cannot.  The responsibility needs to begin at the level of service.  Computer viruses were initially created for the purposes of monopolizing the attention of the readers, bringing them back to the site, or for disrupting other Internet activity.   According to an article by Josh Smith, in “Wallet Pop” increasingly,  individuals and organizations are currently writing viruses aimed at making them rich. The most recent example is a virus that threatens to publish your browsing history online unless you pay a ransom of $15.

According to the article, the virus which is reportedly the work of a Japanese gang, infects computers that connect to a Winni, a popular file-sharing site in Japan that claims up to 200 million users, and enables the download of an illegal game file. Once users download the infected file, the program takes a screenshot of the the sites they have visited online, often including sites that users wouldn’t want their spouses, family, friends and employers learning about; and puts it online under their name.

Personal computer sabotage has created a lucrative industry for viral software designed to pass illegal content, for anti-viral software that preaches a consumer beware agenda for selling expensive protection, while neatly dodging the responsibility for surveillance, and for a law enforcement agency that hasn’t had this much leeway in public prosecution and confiscation of property since the enactment of criminal possession marijuana laws.

At the heart of the issue is the willingness to cry guilty before examining the evidence.  The hysterical anxiety to protect the general population of children has removed the rights of parents to exercise individual value judgments.  The children so delicately sheltered by parents now will legally become adults in just a few short years and just as vulnerable to Internet pedophile profiles.  They will be just as forfeit of legal protection as any adult whose personal computer has been compromised by an intruder.  The question is no longer just one of what constitutes child pornography.  The battle is no longer simply one of protecting the child from the predator.  It’s one of protecting the unaware of invasions into privacy, from legal theft of their means of livelihood, from false accusations, from estrangements in family relations. We all want safety for the children, but in order to give them this, we must maintain the rights, the privacy and the safety of the adults as well.