Amero case spawns effort to educate

Julie Group seeks to avoid future wrongful convictions


A group of security professionals, legal experts, and educators who helped former Connecticut substitute teacher Julie Amero overturn a conviction on charges of exposing her students to pornographic pop-up ads has formed a permanent organisation that aims to educate the courts and legislators about technology, crime, and digital forensics.

Taking the name of the person who brought them together, the members of the Julie Group intend to teach lawyers and end users about issues of technology and criminal law, lobby policy makers for fairness in criminal codes and regulations, and bring to light unfair prosecutions. The group will likely again offer their computer-security expertise to prosecutors and defense attorneys in future cases.

"Our helping Julie Amero was about two things: Getting Julie out of jail and making sure that something like this doesn't happen to other people," said Alexander Eckelberry, president of security firm Sunbelt Software. "We learned with Julie that giving people a voice makes a big difference."

On January 5, a six-person jury found Amero, a former substitute teacher at Kelly Middle School in Norwich, Connecticut, guilty of four counts of risk of injury to a minor, a Connecticut law that includes endangering a the morals of a minor. The charges stem from an incident on 19 October, 2004, when Amero's classroom computer started displaying pornographic pop-up advertisements.

Prosecutors argued that the images appeared because Amero visited porn sites while in class, while the former teacher's defense attorney argued that spyware installed from a hairstyling website caused the deluge of digital smut. The four convictions could have resulted in a maximum of 40 years in prison for the former schoolteacher.

Following the conviction, Eckelberry and others formed a group to analyse the evidence, producing a digital-forensics report that refuted many of the statements made by the prosecution's cybercrime expert, Mark Lounsbury, a detective with the Norwich Police Department, Eckelberry said.

The analysis was not straightforward. Other people, including the middle school's information technology administrator, had accessed the hard drive of the classroom's computer - a Windows 98 SE machine sporting Internet Explorer 5 and expired security software - following the pop-up incident.

Moreover, the investigators only gave the defense a copy of the files on the hard drive, not a bit-for-bit copy of the disk, said Joe Stewart, senior researcher for security firm SecureWorks and a member of the Julie Group's forensic analysis team.

"We had to go with what the prosecution gave to the defense," Stewart said. "You couldn't tell after the fact what had happened. You could tell that things were changed, but you couldn't tell how they were changed."

The security researcher hacked together a web server that could use the browser cache and temporary files to recreate the last web pages that appeared on the computer. The researchers used that and other digital forensics techniques to piece together some of what happened and refute the prosecution's interpretation of events.

The independent group's analysis of the classroom computer, and vocal criticism from technology professionals across the internet, convinced the prosecution to request its own digital forensics report from the state's crime laboratory. Following that analysis - and after delaying Amero's sentencing four times to allow any new evidence to be uncovered - the judge granted on 6 June a motion by the defense to overturn the verdict and allow a new trial.

"When the motion was accepted for a new trial, that was kind of a huge milestone for the group," said Sunbelt Software's Eckelberry. "You get a bunch of people together and this whole community thing is amazing."

The Amero case would not the first time that confusion about technology has led problematic prosecutions. In 2002, a 29-year-old network administrator was convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for sending 5,600 email messages to customers of his former employer - the now-defunct email provider Tornado Development - warning about a security hole in Tornado's service that left private messages vulnerable to unauthorised access.

The prosecutors in the case argued, and the judge agreed, that McDanel was guilty of unauthorised access and abused Tornado's email servers to send the messages. The prosecutors have since admitted their mistake and the case was overturned on appeal, but not before McDanel served 16 months in prison.

While such cases appear to account for a small number of prosecutions, the increased sophistication employed by bot masters and fraudsters in compromising victims' computer could mean that more muddled cases might be ahead.

"Thinking about the implications - that any teacher could get infected after going online, have porn show up on their computer, and go to jail for 40 years - that's bad," said SecureWorks' Stewart. "My own sister is a teacher and she is not that far from Norwich. This could happen to her."

The Julie Group has started forming committees to focus on different tasks and continues to be run as an all-volunteer organisation, Eckelberry said. The group has already started considering other cases.

This article originally appeared in Security Focus.

Copyright © 2007, SecurityFocus


Other stories you might like

  • IT staffing, recruitment biz settles claims it discriminated against Americans
    Foreign workers favored over US residents because that's what clients wanted, allegedly

    Amtex Systems Incorporated, an IT staffing and recruiting firm based in New York City, has agreed to settle claims it discriminated against American workers because company clients wanted workers with temporary visas.

    The US Department of Justice on Wednesday announced the agreement, which followed from a US citizen filing a discrimination complaint with the DoJ's Civil Rights Division’s Immigrant and Employee Rights Section (IER).

    "IT staffing agencies cannot unlawfully exclude applicants or impose additional burdens because of someone’s citizenship or immigration status," said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, in a statement. "The Civil Rights Division is committed to enforcing the law to ensure that job applicants, including US workers, are protected from unlawful discrimination."

    Continue reading
  • Will this be one of the world's first RISC-V laptops?
    A sneak peek at a notebook that could be revealed this year

    Pic As Apple and Qualcomm push for more Arm adoption in the notebook space, we have come across a photo of what could become one of the world's first laptops to use the open-source RISC-V instruction set architecture.

    In an interview with The Register, Calista Redmond, CEO of RISC-V International, signaled we will see a RISC-V laptop revealed sometime this year as the ISA's governing body works to garner more financial and development support from large companies.

    It turns out Philipp Tomsich, chair of RISC-V International's software committee, dangled a photo of what could likely be the laptop in question earlier this month in front of RISC-V Week attendees in Paris.

    Continue reading
  • Did ID.me hoodwink Americans with IRS facial-recognition tech, senators ask
    Biz tells us: Won't someone please think of the ... fraud we've stopped

    Democrat senators want the FTC to investigate "evidence of deceptive statements" made by ID.me regarding the facial-recognition technology it controversially built for Uncle Sam.

    ID.me made headlines this year when the IRS said US taxpayers would have to enroll in the startup's facial-recognition system to access their tax records in the future. After a public backlash, the IRS reconsidered its plans, and said taxpayers could choose non-biometric methods to verify their identity with the agency online.

    Just before the IRS controversy, ID.me said it uses one-to-one face comparisons. "Our one-to-one face match is comparable to taking a selfie to unlock a smartphone. ID.me does not use one-to-many facial recognition, which is more complex and problematic. Further, privacy is core to our mission and we do not sell the personal information of our users," it said in January.

    Continue reading
  • Meet Wizard Spider, the multimillion-dollar gang behind Conti, Ryuk malware
    Russia-linked crime-as-a-service crew is rich, professional – and investing in R&D

    Analysis Wizard Spider, the Russia-linked crew behind high-profile malware Conti, Ryuk and Trickbot, has grown over the past five years into a multimillion-dollar organization that has built a corporate-like operating model, a year-long study has found.

    In a technical report this week, the folks at Prodaft, which has been tracking the cybercrime gang since 2021, outlined its own findings on Wizard Spider, supplemented by info that leaked about the Conti operation in February after the crooks publicly sided with Russia during the illegal invasion of Ukraine.

    What Prodaft found was a gang sitting on assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars funneled from multiple sophisticated malware variants. Wizard Spider, we're told, runs as a business with a complex network of subgroups and teams that target specific types of software, and has associations with other well-known miscreants, including those behind REvil and Qbot (also known as Qakbot or Pinkslipbot).

    Continue reading
  • Supreme Court urged to halt 'unconstitutional' Texas content-no-moderation law
    Everyone's entitled to a viewpoint but what's your viewpoint on what exactly is and isn't a viewpoint?

    A coalition of advocacy groups on Tuesday asked the US Supreme Court to block Texas' social media law HB 20 after the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last week lifted a preliminary injunction that had kept it from taking effect.

    The Lone Star State law, which forbids large social media platforms from moderating content that's "lawful-but-awful," as advocacy group the Center for Democracy and Technology puts it, was approved last September by Governor Greg Abbott (R). It was immediately challenged in court and the judge hearing the case imposed a preliminary injunction, preventing the legislation from being enforced, on the basis that the trade groups opposing it – NetChoice and CCIA – were likely to prevail.

    But that injunction was lifted on appeal. That case continues to be litigated, but thanks to the Fifth Circuit, HB 20 can be enforced even as its constitutionality remains in dispute, hence the coalition's application [PDF] this month to the Supreme Court.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022