How poor web security nearly lead to a jail term

The Julie Amero trial highlights the importance of security and making courts understand how the internet works.

Julie Amero, a substitute teacher in Connecticut, was found guilty in January 2007 of exposing children to porn. She was convicted on four felony counts of "impairing the morals of a child". She faced 40 years in prison, all because pornographic sites popped up on her computer in front of her seventh grade class.

Most would already argue that's too harsh but some, including one blogger, would argue that she got was coming to her.

The CEO's story

Alex Eckelberry, chief executive of Sunbelt Software, read the story and immediately knew that something was wrong.

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A 40-year-old woman, who knew nothing about computers, was using a machine which was totally unprotected. There was adware, no desktop firewall, no pop-up blocking, an unpatched version of Windows 98, and out-of-date anti-virus software.

He says: "It was a litany of horrors. This woman was literally thrown into a shark tank. Without any understanding of what she was doing when she got onto a computer, got into a pop-up storm with porn.

"Some of the kids saw the porn. But there was little indication that this was nasty porn'. There was porn, but we actually found a situation where one child said he saw one particular sexual act, but we did not find that on the machine."

He adds: "Did anybody check with what this kid saw was on the computer? No."

Eckelberry did more research on the case, and it looked more and more that what he was seeing was a travesty of justice. He kept writing about the case on the Sunbelt company blog, until he got the chance to meet Amero.

He said: "I talked with her for about an hour, and was deeply moved after hearing her story. I called up our director of research, and said she has no money, she's facing prison we've got to get legal help."

Hardcore crime

Eckelberry said that he was incredibly angry that the "crime" that Amero was supposed to have committed was given the level of a felony the most serious charge a US state court can give.

Felonies are so serious that those found guilty lose the right to vote. As well, they have to disclaim the charge on a job application for the rest of their lives.

He says: "It's made for hardcore crime. When I saw the word felony' connected with something like this I got really pissed off Give me a break! Let's just say she had been guilty and irresponsible. Would that have deserved a felony? No! The kids obviously weren't mentally damaged."

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Unlike the UK, where there are only national laws, US states like Connecticut have their own statutes. Eckelberry said: "In Connecticut they have this really weird law called endangering the morals of a minor'. What does this mean? Pretty much anything they want to charge you with.

"For example you have a Playboy or Hustler magazine in your office you are endangering the morals of a child."

Norwich Superior Court charged her under this law, with four children testifying against her leading to four charges, each one worth ten years in federal prison.

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