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One click, you’re guilty

Let me write a little fiction for a moment:

    John is in his late twenties and an Internet power-user. He uses it for work (he is an independent consultant of some sort), he uses it for games (he is a dab hand at playing on-line, feared amongst the community of Alien vs. Predator 2 gamers) and, being a guy, he likes to trawl through Usenet newsgroups to find pictures of who ever his babe-de-jour is… he is currently rather keen on Britany Spears (my, my, she is aging well).

    One night, he visits one of his favourite newsgroups: alt.binaries.celebrities.nude

    The list of articles builds, then he casts his eye down the displayed article headers, selecting several posts which indicate they contain images of Britany Spears. He sees one that says ‘Britany Nude’. ‘Hmmm, probably another fake,’ he thinks to himself, ‘no doubt some twit has used PhotoShop to put the divine Miss B’s head on the body of some porn star’..

    He clicks ‘extract binaries’ to download the images that people have posted in 120 or so articles and while that chugs away in the background, he launches Excel to catch up on some work he has been putting off.

    A few hours later, he goes back to the directory in which his UseNet reader saves extracted binary images and sees a long list of 120 .jpg and .gif pictures. He starts to check them out, keeping the good ones, junking the dross and any duplicates. Then he comes to a file called nudebritney.jpg. He opens it and his lip twitches up in disgust. It is a scared looking little girl, maybe 12 years old, naked and posed suggestively with her legs apart, a web address ending in .ru is written across the bottom of the image.

    ‘What type of vermin do that to a little girl?’ he growls to the un-hearing screen. With a couple clicks of the mouse, he deletes the offending image and moves on to the next, which turns out to be a picture of the real Britany Spears dancing with a snake at the MTV awards. The angry scowl fades and the smile reappears on his face.

    About 2 months later, there is a knock on his door and there is a tax inspector with a warrant. They seize his computer as part of an ongoing tax related dispute… two days later they return, not to charge him with tax evasion but with child pornography offenses! They used an un-delete utility (such as Norton Utilities) to recover supposedly ‘erased’ files and found a file called nudebritany.jpg.

Is this a far fetched scenario? Unfortunately not.

There is a fascinating article in Wired magazine about the terrifying approach taken by the FBI towards eradicating child pornography on the Internet:

As one FBI agent put it, “Even my friends can’t believe there’s a federal offense that’s so easy to commit. One click, you’re guilty.”

Possession of child porn is a strict-liability offense, like possession of cocaine. Possessing it, though, does not only mean you have intentionally downloaded and stored the images on your hard drive. Under Title 18 of the US Code, the felony is committed the first time sexually explicit images of minors — defined as anyone under 18 — appear on your screen. If your computer is searched, even files that have been dragged to the trash or cached by your browser software are counted as evidence. Some offenders have been sent to jail for “possessing” images that only a computer-forensics technician can see.

So even if you receive an unsolicited spam mail with attached pictures of child porn and delete the images without opening them, you cannot prove you did not look at them but the state sure as hell can prove they were on your hard drive once!

Much as RICO statutes in the USA were passed to fight against the Mafia but ended up being used against anti-abortion activists and environmental protestors, so too will laws against Internet kiddie porn be used to criminalise people the state just happens to want to criminalise, regardless of whether or not they have the slightest thing to do with the problem of child pornography. This will be hard to stop… after all, who wants to stand up and protest when that risks you being called an ‘apologist for child pornographers’. Nasty.

The Internet gives us many and varied ways to fight the state’s constant attempts to regulate our lives and livelihoods, but is also gives the state new ways to attack us. The state is not your friend.

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25 comments to One click, you’re guilty

  • Indeed! In some states, each instance of a child porn picture is a separate offense, which means that someone who inadvertantly downloads a child porn video could be charged with thousands of counts of child porn possession (one for each frame)! That’s scary considering that I’ve received the disgusting spam of which you speak. That makes me (through no fault of my own) a criminal. Boy, I sure do love the government. They’re always so fair.

  • Richard

    Just say, hypothetically speaking…

    Suppose I was involved in a child custody case. I get an undtraceable email account and send my ex-spouse several child porn pictures. I encrypt them slightly, using some very easily breakable code like ROT-13, so he or she can’t open them, and won’t know what they are, so they won’t bother to do a military-grade erase on them.

    And then I rat them out to the DA, and let them know he or she has child porn on their computer.

    Anyone see anything wrong with this scenario?

  • Deoxy

    As disgusting as it is to contmplate, there is one solution to this (which I would only consider advocating if the government actually began to abuse this):

    Spam every single email address (or close enough) with a child porn shot.

    Disgusting though it would be, it would make every single email-addressed person in the US guilty of this so-called “crime”, including those seeking to prosecute anyone else. The “crime” would then have to be redefined as doing to intentionally, or so such thing.

    Of course, the problem would be that someone would have to actually send the filth, which would be an onerous duty. As I said, to be done ONLY if it really gets out of hand.

    Actually, now that I think about it, I doubt that there are many email-addressed people in the US who aren’t already criminal by this definition – how many people have recieved the spam in question? Also, how many people have found misleadingly named graphics on the web?

    Actually, there was a friend of mine who found some child porn on a site listed as a Disney’s Beauty and the Beast fan site – intentionally trying to get kids to look at it. How’s that for disgusting? And now, according to this, everyone who’s been VICTIMIZED by that site (and the many other I’m sure that are out there like it) is technically a “criminal”. Isn’t that nice?

  • Hmm, this could cut both ways. What’s to prevent hackers doing this to government officials. It’s not hard to get a hold of official addresses, and start sending them child porn. Given how turf wars tend to be a large part of daily strife in these agencies, it’s not hard to play agencies off each other. Get the state DA to investigate federal employees.. hmmm..

    How many barking moonbats would lose their jobs and their pensions.. oh my..!

    Wait, I’m saying it like it’s a bad thing..!

  • Deoxy

    One last point – in the scenario described – how do you even know that an image is porn (or anything else) until you look at it?

    For instance, what does the file “zfqew457akd.jpg” contain? You have no idea – until you open it. At that point, if it’s porn, no matter WHAT your reaction, you’re a “criminal.”

    Oh, and you wouldn’t even have to open it. Let’s say you download it and someone tells you it’s kiddy porn afterwards, and you delete it WITHOUT EVER LOOKING IT. How would you PROVE you didn’t look at it?

  • Well, if you are worried about porn just being in spam mail, thereby getting you into trouble, my lovely wife introduced me to an easy solution for users of MS Outlook.

    Control panel->Mail->Data Files->Settings, will allow you to compact all your mail folders, including the main outlook.pst file (which contains the deleted items folder), thereby making deleted emails unrecoverable.

    Also, if you just opened up the file from an email and did not physically save it, then it’s in your internet temp folders and can be periodically deleted. There are also tools out there that let you scramble deleted areas so the files there are unrecoverable. PGP comes with one.

    I’m not so sure about this, but a hardware guy at my company once told me that periodic defragmentation of the hard drive is a good way to write over unused sectors, thereby making deleted files unrecoverable (effectively)

  • NC3

    It didn’t occur to me that someone like an estranged spouse could use this to set you up. That is just too terrible to contemplate. But I do like the idea of spamming the legislators and prosecutors of this law. That would indeed get it fixed in a hurry. Dear Lord, some of you people are devious; good work!

  • tech support

    A few points to make: First, people shouldn’t be getting in trouble for possession of one or two images, if there’s a context of where those illegal images could have come from, as in the guy (it’s mostly guys so I’m being sexist here) was visiting porn sites or usenet newsgroups. If I was the defense attorney (and I’m not, but anyway) I’d argue that it the guy had a record of downloading legal adult porn, and this one happened to get through. In addition, once you’ve visited any Web site, there’s tons of evidence that you’ve been there, (C:windowscookies, the C:/windows/temporaryinternetfilefolder) basically stuff that gets downloaded to your HD when your BROWSER is working. In other words, if you’re a defense attorney, spend the money to get a computer expert on the stand to explain how these things work.

    Second, most of the people who have been getting in trouble for possessing child porn (and as a parent, don’t get me started on how I’d love to see these scum punished severely) have literally, hundreds, if not thousands of images. Not so long ago, near where I live, there was a guy who got busted for child porn. You know how he was caught? He was JAYWALKING across the street, got stopped by a cop, and the cop thought something funny was up with the numerous computer disks he had in his backpack. So there was a search done on those disks, and voila. And, no, he wasn’t even a computer science student. I think in any courtroom, you’d have to at least show intent and with hundreds of disks, there WAS intent.

    Third, the reason why the information about defragmenting is correct is that when Windows deletes a file, the file does not disappear or get immediately scrambled. All that a delete indicates is that there is a mark by the OS, Windows, that this space (the old data) is available to be written to. Because the HDs are so large nowadays there is a chance that the space never gets rewritten to, and in that case it is trivially easy to get an undelete program to find the “marked delete space”. What a defragging program does is actually take the data files and line them up in sequential order on your HD (Windows initially saves parts of files in different places -sectors- on your HD, so defrag gets all of the parts of a file together. So, basically data is taken from one area and re-written to a different place.

    Now if the data is overwritten, then there is a very small chance (which is debated by forensic professionals) that the data can be recovered. But to be honest with you, I’d just personally doubt that intensive forensic analysis would occur unless there was extenuating circumstances.

    Fourth point, criminals are dumb. The only reliable way to get rid of data on a hard drive is to physically destroy it. I personally wouldn’t trust a speaker magnet to do the job of completely erasing any data. (HDs use magnetic disks currently…) Because the dedicated criminal wants to use their computer, this physical destruction won’t ever happen, unless they are able to get a sledgehammer while the FBI is at the door.

    So, to be honest with you, I highly doubt the above scenario will ever happen. And I apologize profusely for the lack of English styling and the ultra-techie information. I can’t help it when I get so excited about a topic.

  • A few years back, I was reading alt.binaries.pictures.astro–a newsgroup for astronomical photographs. We had a bit of a problem with spammers crossposting porno to every newsgroup that started with alt.binaries.pictures, because spammers are too stupid to think. Mostly, these were pretty obvious and easy to skip without seeing them.

    One picture I opened up by accident, however, had a child (and I do NOT mean a young woman or even a teenager) performing oral sex on a man. That was about the point where my tolerance of the spammers evaporated. There was NO warning that it was pornography, much less child pornography.

    If someone tells me as a juror that they didn’t request this stuff, I am going to need some pretty strong proof before I convict, because I know that some of this trash gets emailed to people, and with no warning.

  • It might well be that many cases would be hard to successfully prosecute, unless they can also show more than a couple sporadic downloads such images… but it would be extremely easy to at least bring the charges, given how easy it is for one of those vile images to find its way onto your hard drive, and that alone can destroy your life. I mean, being accused of being involved with KIDDIE PORN? I have read enough media reports about such things to suspect these sort of accusations tend to stick regardless of the fact a person has never actually convicted. The potential for mischief and malice is truly horrendous.

  • How trustworthy are the disk wipe utilities available, such as Norton and PGP?

    Also, re “Control panel->Mail->Data Files->Settings, will allow you to compact all your mail folders, including the main outlook.pst file (which contains the deleted items folder), thereby making deleted emails unrecoverable.”
    Might there not be preceding versions of the outlook.pst file lingering on the HD, which will not be compacted? Mac users of Netscape 4.x and Norton Undelete will notice that hundreds of copies of one’s Inbox file could be loitering around, several even from the same date if you Empty Trash often. These files could have copies of the unwanted mails prior to being dragged to the trash.

  • I am not unsympathetic to John, who is clearly innocent, but I feel obliged to be unpopular and point out that he, and those like him, would not be in such a situation if they didn’t use the internet as an aide to self-abuse.

    In general, though, I suggest to any innocent person this worried about the law that every time an illegal image of this kind appears on their system, they note Filename, Description of picture, Date and Time – and most importantly how it came to be on their system – before deleting it. Then they can explain that to the jury. I imagine this would get Clayton Cramer and those in similar situations of the hook in front of every jury but O. J. Simpson’s.

    http://www.btinternet.com/~old.whig/flcomm/flc037.htm has Sean Gabb’s take on internet child porn. A good essay, however much I disagree with it.

  • My apologies for the multiple TrackBack entries. I edited the post after the original send and it appears that MT resent the ping (which I didn’t think it was supposed to do). Please feel free to delete the 3 extra ones.

  • Peter Cuthbertson: Good grief. Firstly, that fact is you could be in exactly the same position if you received the offending picture via spam e-mail and it was called maggiethatcher.jpg or something innocuous like rosebud.jpg. And just because you regard it rather oddly as ‘self abuse’, so what? It is rather like putting a person at risk of arrest just because they walked though an area frequented by prostitutes and maybe they looked at one. What if they live there?

    Secondly, whilst one could indeed note that information, why the hell should you have to? As a practical matter, 99.99% of the population of Internet users finding themselves in that situation will just delete the image and think nothing more of it. In the real world people just do not sweat the details to such an extent and I would argue that is not reckless or irresponsible, but is entirely reasonable behaviour: we do not communicate on the Internet at the state’s sufferance. Should we log all our telephone calls if a chum on the other end starts spouting off about wanting to ‘kill’ some politico just in case some third party might think he really means it? It is a monstrous imposition that anyone should even have to think in such terms every time they connect their computer to the Internet. The whole point of my article was that this is God’s gift to overzealous law officers who may have all manner of ulterior motives for busting a person that have nothing to do with the reality of kiddie porn.

  • The situation described could actually quite easily be much worse and much more incriminating for a purely innocent person. Many individuals who download images, audio, or video from usenet use automated tools to do so, frequently setting them to download *all* files posted to particular groups. It is much easier for them to look through the finished files and determine what they want to keep and what they do not. Not only could this download child pornography without the user knowingly doing so, but it would download child pornography that was plainly marked as such!

    Imagine this scenario. Mr. X has an interest in classic movies, so he sets up his binary news client to download everything from alt.binaries.multimedia.vintage-film. At one point in time he visits his relatives for a week around christmas time. Unbeknownst to him someone has been spamming child pornography to the newsgroup. And though it is named such that no human would have any doubt that it was child pornography the program still downloads it along with everything else. Over a period of several days Mr. X’s usenet account is recorded to have downloaded several dozen images and movies of quite plainly labeled illegal material. Upon returning home Mr. X discovers the disasterous error and deletes the files, but the evidence on the news server still exists. So any eager prosecutor could quite easily haul him into court. He might have a solid case for defending himself, but even so, being put on trial for such heinous acts would probably tarnish his reputation forever. In such cases juries tend to lean more toward guilty until proven innocent than the opposite, so there is no guarantee that he would not do serious prison time.

  • Perry, I think you misunderstand a little. “Self-abuse” is an antiquated term for “masturbation”.

    As for the idea that you would open an email with child porn as the attachment, how likely is this to happen often? What is spam is obvious to anyone who has email for a few months. If you manage to ignore all the clues and open a child porn picture, and you don’t think you will remember your own innocence, how hard is it to note a handful of facts down in a few minutes? I’d say this is the equivalent of having cocaine posted through your letterbox. If you are at all worried you may have to show your dealings were innocent, making a few notes is the answer.

    Now, your story is based on a contrast between John’s innocent search for pornographic pictures of Britney Spears and his discovery of genuine child porn among the bargain. But the idea that the two are opposing and unconnected concepts is unsupportable. As Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, Britney Spears’ entire appeal is to the paedophile who wants sex with teenage girls: her career is an advert for paedophilia. She is also, according to some, the most searched for human being on the internet.

    What distinguishes wacking material of her from similar pictures of younger girls except for a more or less arbitary age limit? Is it fine to look at pictures of 18 year old girls with an underdeveloped body that looks physically about 14, but sick to enjoy pictures of 16 year olds with developed, mature bodies? What if the age of the girl in question isn’t obvious? Is it okay to start lusting? I just don’t accept that there exists the clear cut distinction you seem to promote. If you regularly use the internet to access pornography, you can safely expect to stray onto the illegal stuff. The innocent/sicko division just doesn’t exist when pornography’s entire purpose is to create and appeal to fetishes, each image pushing back further the boundaries of what constitutes excitement, promoting the search for something more graphic. The idea that a great many people who do porn searches aren’t often looking for something very similar to what got John convicted is blown away by the popularity of Spears, and the porn email spam I get daily, which mentions “teen sluts” and so on almost exclusively.

    I don’t say that people in John’s situation deserve what they get by any means. But I do think that when they go looking for porn, this is what they should expect to get. The solution is obvious.

  • But Peter, as Deoxy pointed out @10.27pm, it’s possible to find oneself looking at websites that are apparently innocent, but are actually anything but. Just the other day I found a page offering conservative links; all legit, except for one – although the name and url was entirely innocent it redirected to another site altogether (nothing heavy, but not what I was expecting). Example 2: I once came across a 3rd-party add on to Novell and wanted to learn more about it; went to the site listed on the product’s interface, navigated up to the top-level of the website – and wished I hadn’t. While I don’t recall it being truly nasty, it was not what I expected to find looking for technical material. Example 3 – a computer magazine did an article about how there are sites named similarly to mainstream sites. One example cited was someone getting a shock by typing in ‘hotmale’ instead of ‘hotmail’ – admittedly I think that guy has some subconscious issues he needs to come to terms with, but that’s just my opinion. 😉 You might be a typo away from committing a crime.

    How much more lilywhite in my surfing habits can I be? But if anyone’s checking, my user-id could be getting flagged up in any amount of places; and God knows what detritus is being left behind (those index.dat files are a bit worrying).

    Echoing what Perry wrote @4.28am and Robin @1.38pm, it’s handing a stick to the State with which to beat us. Anyone remember the Timex strike in Dundee? The front-page headlines when two were charged with (gasp) Attempted Murder? Then after the damage was done, the charges were quietly dropped to something minor like Refusing to stop when ordered.
    Some of us might smile at some lefties getting stitched, but now it’s Labour in power and the police are aiming at us now. You give ’em the ammo, they’re gonna use it.

  • paranoia cha cha cha

    Set your browser to let you manage cookies – reject the ones you don’t want. Block third party cookies.

    Delete your history and temp internet files routinely.

    Get a program called “Ad Aware” and run it routinely. It scans your computer for “spyware” and allows you to get rid of it.

    Defrag your drives routinely, makes it more difficult to recover “deleted” files.

    Not perfect but just good internet hygene.

  • Tools like Norton Utilities only work on the Windows family of operating systems, which use the FAT32 and NTFS filesystems. Norton can’t be used to muck around with the ext2, ext3, ReiserFS, JFS, XFS, and UFS filesystems used by GNU/Linux and FreeBSD, which are Unix-type operating systems. Furthermore, files on Unix-type systems are password-protected by default, and covered by a moderately rigorous system of permissions. If you want to thwart the state, boycott Microsoft and use Unix.

    Hack free or die!

  • While Matt is correct that Norton won’t work on non-win32 filesystems, there are a _slew_ of other ways to recover data from these filesystems. Having contracted out for data recovery on crashed drives in the past, the amount of once-deleted data you can buy for $2,000 boggles the mind.

    Also, files on a unix-style partition aren’t “password protected by default,” or anything even remotely like that. Permissions don’t matter once you’re root; I can easily mount any linux-supported partition and access any file on it. Now, if you want to use a Steganographic Filesytem (google for ‘stegFS’) then you’ve finally entered the realm of plausible deniability.


    Phil G.

  • Gloria

    There are problems even more fundamental than this type of law enforcement behaviour, it is the warped attitude society has towards images of naked children which in turn is just an exaggeration of the warped attitude society has towards nudity in general.

    Never mind the ridiculous notion that sex with a person below some arbitrary age is fundamentally wrong – there is NO evidence that consensual sex is harmful to minors, there is NO evidence that their posing naked is harmful and there is NO evidence that pictures of naked minors leads someone with paedophile tendencies to act out. Now some will argue that someone below a certain age is incapable of consenting – absolute, total and utter rubbish. There is no evidence to support such an assertion – children are quite capable of saying no.

    There is furthermore NO evidence that people who enjoy pornography are ever looking to escalate to something more or push back boundaries; these are simply unsubstantiated claims spread by those with a religious agenda; and we should never lose sight of the fact that religion, Christianity in particular, has a great deal to answer for in the untold damage that has been done to society by puritan attitudes.

    The article by Sean Gabb is pretty much right on the money in all respects.

    The simple solution to the increasing police state is various levels of encryption combined with utilities to periodically wipe out deleted data – what is on my PC is just like what is in my home, none of their business unless they have genuine evidence I have committed a crime. And if you really are a criminal as opposed to the millions that are seen as easy targets for state harassment, then you should make sure your system is physically secure with measures to show tampering, e.g. the insertion of keystroke loggers, as well as regular sweeps of your equipment to ensure no tampering has taken place. There are smart criminals out there – they’re the ones you don’t read about in the newspapers because they get away with it and they will continue to do so, only ordinary citizens have something to fear.

  • Phil G., you’re right in that root can do as he will with any file on a mounted filesystem. However, on a properly secured system, root’s should be the hardest password to crack. I’ll look at the StegFS, but in the meantime, I find that I can achieve a comfortable level of security by backing up the data I know I want to keep to CD-R, using FDISK to wipe the drive clean at the partition level, and then reinstalling my operating system, software, and restoring from backup before breaking the backup CD-R in quarters. This is something I do monthly, sometimes using Linux with ReiserFS or ext3, and sometimes FreeBSD with UFS.

  • Mark

    Get Invisible Secrets 3. It’s a sweet program that can shred and overwrite files n times, making even low-level forensics and data recovery impossible. You don’t need this just to get rid of stupid kiddie porn crap and spam, but most businesses use progams like this if they’re going to donate old computers to schools or even Goodwill. It just makes sure that NO data remains behind or can be recovered. This program also does some cool steganography – embedding messages in images files (JPGs, BMPs, etc) without noticeably altering the image itself. It is then encrypted to where only the recipient with the correct password can extract the message. Anyone else looking at the image file wouldn’t even suspect that there was a message in it. The File Shredder in this program is worth it alone.

    TweakXP (obviously only for WindowsXP systems) also has a built-in file shredder that claims to obliterate files beyond any ability to recover them. Both of the above-mentioned programs claim to use the same file shredding abilities that the military trusts to destroy sensitive computer files.

  • Mitsuko

    doesn’t the court have to prove INTENT in order to prosecute?

  • Mitsuko

    doesn’t the court have to prove INTENT in order to prosecute?