Fighting child porn vs. ruining innocent lives

Here's a classic example of how legitimate societal concerns about child pornography are fueling overzealous prosecutions – overzealous being a generous description - that can toss innocents into a living hell intended solely for sexual predators.

Let's start at the very bottom of this report from ABC News:

In the den of the Bandy home sits the family computer, now unplugged from the Internet. The Bandys learned that, for them, the Web is simply too dangerous.

"It means that computers are not safe," said Jeannie Bandy. "I don't want to have one in my house. Under even the strictest rules and the strictest security, your computer is vulnerable."

That vulnerability nearly sent their teenage son to prison for a crime – possession of child pornography -- that there is every reason to believe he did not commit. It almost saddled that child with a sexual-offender label that would have haunted and handicapped him the rest of his life. And it did force the boy to plead guilty to a lesser charge, a comically trumped-up offense springing from his admitted sharing with other teens – horror of horrors – a copy of Playboy. (Thank heavens for the statute of limitations lest 95% of the country's male population would be vulnerable to prosecution on that one.)

As for why the teen's parents have unplugged their computer, it isn't simply a matter of removing temptation. Here's what the computer forensics expert they hired to help exonerate their son told ABC:

"If you have an Internet connection, high speed, through, let's say, your cable company, or through the phone company, that computer is always on, and basically you have an open doorway to the outside," said Tammi Loehrs. "So the home user has no idea who's coming into their computer."

Loehrs went into the Bandys' computer and what she found could frighten any parent -- more than 200 infected files, so-called backdoors that allowed hackers to access the family computer from remote locations, no where near Matthew's house. "They could be on your computer and you'd never know it," she said.

Loehrs says she does not believe that Matthew uploaded those images onto his computer "based on everything I know and everything I've seen on that hard drive."

So how does our society balance the need to protect children and punish those who trade in child porn with its obligation to avoid ensnaring the innocent in that effort?

Certainly a start would be better and more dispassionate judgments on the part of prosecutors, something that was glaringly absent in this case.

Beyond that? It would seem clear that educational and technological solutions are needed. Parents need to learn of the dangers and take appropriate precautions to secure their home computers. They need to add this nightmare scenario to the list of admonishments they already deliver to their kids about divulging personal information and meeting strangers.

But what can technologists contribute? What piece or pieces are missing that would help home users guard against their PCs becoming unwitting hosts ... and what might help prosecutors make more accurate decisions about who's guilty and who's merely being used?

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