How your computer can get you convicted

Spare a thought, as you're eating your Thanksgiving turkey, or local variant, for one Julie Amero. Ms. Amero was a relief teacher in Connecticut, who found herself convicted on pornography charges when the classroom computer was infected by spyware.
You may not be a teacher, you may not live in Connecticut, and you may not be interested in pornography. But her experience is one we could all learn from.
The case dates back to Oct. 19, 2004, when Ms. Amero was substituting for a seventh-grade language class at Kelly Middle School in Norwich, Connecticut. Pupils, being kids, would lark around on the teacher's computer when the regular teacher was out of the room; when Ms. Amero took charge of the class, the computer started showing pornographic images.
Now we're not talking a full-on peep show for the class here. When Ms. Amero realized what was going on she tried to block students from seeing what was on the screen. She tried to get help, but none came.
But that didn't stop her being convicted, more than two years later, on four counts of risk of injury to a minor, or impairing the morals of a child.
The original case was later thrown out, but Ms. Amero, on the advice of her lawyers, has tried to end the nightmare by admitting on Nov. 22 to one misdemeanor charge and surrendering her state teaching license. She's also been hospitalized for stress and heart problems.
Of course, this case should never have come to trial. And most of you don't live in places where law enforcement officials are so clueless about how computers work.
But it does carry some important lessons.
First off, what is spyware? Spyware is software that installs itself on your computer without you necessarily knowing about it. It could be downloaded simply by visiting a website.
Sometimes it's deliberately downloaded -- usually by young people who don't know better. Sometimes it comes hidden inside legitimate software. Even reputable outfits like Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft and Google try to "push" their software in underhanded ways.
So what does this stuff do? Well, it can be relatively harmless. Some spyware -- we prefer the term "malware", as it includes all forms of software that don't have your interests at heart -- will try to change your browser's homepage. Others, like the ones Ms. Amero found herself besieged by, will pop up windows pushing unwelcome products at you.
At the far end of the spectrum are programs which will report back on your activities -- your passwords, your browsing habits -- to bad people with bad intentions.
Bottom line: Spyware is bad for your computer, and, possibly, bad for your career.
Ms. Amero appears to have been let down by the school. The computer had a program installed on it that was designed to filter out trash. But the license had not been renewed, so the filter had not been updated.
The porn may have got through anyway. No filter is ever going to keep the bad guys out. But if you're going to install software like that you really need to make sure it's updated.
I've seen enough of this to know how easy it is to get infected by this stuff, and how hard it is to get it off.
The sad thing is that the infections usually come from kids messing around on the family computer, and so it's them who get to see the bad stuff. Parents then freak out, blame the kids and then ban them from the computer.
So, adults -- parents, teachers -- need to understand this kind of thing better. Here's how (thanks to Mark Trudinger of child-friendly search engine for contributions):
First, install antivirus software, make sure a firewall is installed, and then something called Windows Defender, which will keep an eye on stuff. I also use something called WinPatrol ( to monitor what programs try to mess around with my computer behind my back.
Second, limit which people can download and install on the computer. Windows XP lets you set up different accounts for different users; kids should not have accounts which allow them to install programs. Vista users will find parental controls built in. Play around with them until you're happy.
Lastly, most browsers allow you to stop pop-ups. This should keep your desktop clean.
If you do think you're infected, run antivirus software, run the Windows Defender software, and, if you're still worried, call for help. If you're a teacher, turn off the computer monitor, or remove it from the classroom. If you're not allowed to do that, stick paper over it.
There's a bigger point here. I don't want to sound unsympathetic to Ms. Amero. She describes herself as a "computer neophyte" -- not someone who really knows what's going on when it comes to computers. This used to be OK. But I don't think it is anymore.
Most of us encounter computers at home, at work, at play. Many of us rely on them for our livelihoods. Ms. Amero did; she was a teacher, and no teacher nowadays can avoid computers.
As parents, too, we need to understand this stuff. Not all of it, but enough to protect ourselves and the kids we're responsible for.
No longer can we throw up our hands and say "I don't know how to work this thing, so I'm not responsible".
If nothing else, we need to know enough to be able to scream "help!" until a techie guy comes running.
We may not end up convicted of corrupting minors if we don't. But if Ms. Amero's case is anything to go by, the days of the "computer neophyte defense" are over.
Enjoy the rest of your turkey.
Jeremy Wagstaff

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