Guilty by content

So if you start scanning the PCs in your organization for inappropriate and/or illegal content and you find it, who will be blamed? How will you and the "culprit" be affected? In short, what will you do?

A couple of weeks ago Gearhead discussed a piece of software called Snitch that looks for and reports on "dubious" content and can be used to clean things up.

The reason such tools exist is that once connected to the Internet, the tidal wave of pornography you will receive - whether or not you actively look for it - guarantees you will have content stored on your PCs with which you and the PC's users might not want to be associated.

And that content is getting evermore tawdry. Where once porn spam was purely text screaming "Check out our hot babes!" today it is HTML mail with animated graphical content and even sound.

And pop-up ads are another matter altogether. There are sites that link to sites that pop up ads that in turn pop up ads that pop up yet more ads that frequently contain people doing things that you might have fantasized about but are often things (or people) that you hoped never to see doing whatever it is they're doing.

But even if you delete the e-mail messages or close the pop-ups, the content is more often than not still stored somewhere on your system. It might be in your browser cache, in a temporary work file, or deleted but not purged in your e-mail client or in your trash folder. It might also be textural and stored in a history URL.

Now this content is problematic for several reasons. First, it is always embarrassing when somebody uses your Web browser and goes to Google to search for "network diagnostic tools" and as they start to type the autocomplete feature immediately offers "naked hot babes covered in butter." Rather a giveaway, isn't it?

Second, if pornographic content is displayed in a workplace, legislation in support of horrifyingly rampant political correctness - in the guise of sexual harassment laws - can be invoked by anyone who has any negative reaction to the content.

Third, there is a lot of content on the Internet that is illegal and which could, through the mechanisms we have discussed, wind up stored on your computers. Just having the content - no matter how you got it - could have significant consequences.

It is interesting what pornographic content might be considered illegal - check out an informative article on the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Web site, "The First Amendment, New Media and the Supreme Court."

The one type of content that is guaranteed to get you into serious hot water is child pornography. No matter how you came by it, to have it on your computer appears to be a one-way ticket to a lot of trouble. An FBI agent was quoted in a Wired magazine article on online child pornography as saying, "One click, you're guilty. . . . A federal offense is that easy."

What is particularly worrying is that should you discover child porn on your computers you would, as I understand it, be advised to get rid of it quietly. Apparently the response of the FBI if you call up and say that you have discovered what you think is child porn will be a number of agents who turn up and remove your PCs.

I have read a number of accounts where impounded PCs are returned months or years after being taken away, something that would put a real crimp in operations for a small business let alone the business of someone working out of a home office.

I find it very worrying that we seem to be creating an environment where trying to be a responsible citizen could not only be to your disadvantage but also, if the FBI officer's quote is true, actually get you branded a criminal!

So if you start scanning the PCs in your organization for inappropriate and/or illegal content and you find it, who will be blamed? How will you and the "culprit" be affected?

In short, what will you do?

Thoughts to backspin@gibbs.com.

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