After Amero case, antispyware group sees more fights ahead

A volunteer effort led by lawyers, security researchers and educators wants to stop the next Julie Amero from becoming a spyware casualty.

Amero is the Norwich, Connecticut, substitute teacher who, until last week, had been facing 40 years in prison on felony charges of endangering minors. She was charged after an October 2004 incident in which a classroom computer began popping up pornographic images while Amero was teaching.

Prosecutors said that she was responsible for the porn and a jury found Amero guilty of the charges last January. But after security experts examined her computer, they determined that spyware was to blame. Amero's cause became popular in the antispyware community, which dissected the case and lobbied in her defense.

Amero is still facing charges, but last week a judge set aside the guilty verdict, paving the way for a new trial, and keeping Amero out of jail for the time being.

Now, some of those involved in Amero's case want to help others who may be in a similar position. On Saturday, they started a new project, called The Julie Group, to help others who may be falsely accused of crimes because of spyware.

"We've noticed that this is a general problem," said Sunbelt Software Inc. CEO Alex Eckelberry, a member of the project who was an early campaigner in the Julie Amero case. "There are other people who have run into similar situations."

Matt Bandy is one such victim. He was 16 when police raided his house and charged him with possession of child pornography, charges that had him facing a 90-year jail sentence. Bandy eventually pleaded guilty to lesser charges, but he should never have been arrested, according to some. Julie Project members believe that Bandy may have been the victim of a worm that turned his PC into a "zombie computer," that was used by others to store the child pornography.

The Julie Amero case helped bring attention to the issue of false charges, which is more widespread than most people realize, said Chris Boyd, a well-known blogger and FaceTime Communications Inc. researcher who has volunteered with the project. "Many cases don't ever receive any publicity because the lawyers advise their clients to plead guilty and avoid getting into the public eye as much as possible," he said via instant message. "I get sent e-mail, even letters, on a semi-regular basis from people asking me for help -- people in trouble with the law, people whose businesses have gone under because of Adware vendors stealing their sales -- all sorts of crazy things."

"I do what I can, but something more is needed," he added. "That's one of the ideas behind this group."

In addition to providing technical and legal expertise to people who have been wrongly charged, the Julie Project hopes to produce materials that can be used to educate users, law enforcement, and prosecutors.

Volunteers have set up a blog and a Wiki page, and are working on an educational materials such as a DVD, Eckelberry said.

Antispyware researcher Ben Edelman says the Julie Project could perform a valuable service by documenting the way malicious software works with the PC and illustrating the problems that can come up in these cases. "I think the main thing is to have something to point to, something that says, 'Here's what can happen,'" he said.

Arguing that the computer's owner may not be responsible for crimes like possessing child pornography is a legitimate defense, said Edelman, who is an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School. "It's not like, 'the dog ate my homework,'" he said. "'The computer did it' is a serious defense and you have to take it seriously."

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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