Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Homeland Security computer specialist arrested in serious home computing incident

NBC4 in Washington DC today announced the arrest of Peter North, 54, a computer specialist from the Department of Homeland Security, for visiting child pornography on his computer, apparently at home. The NBC link is here. The DC Examiner story is here.

The Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria helped, as did his Internet provider, Comcast. It appears that he used P2P networks had a large volume of images. (Note on Missing Children's website: the ".org" domain is a parked domain exploiting this name to draw traffic; use .com.)

Nevertheless, civil liberties experts question involving a private company this way in an investigation, because the “First Amendment” defense does not apply with a private company. I’m not sure how that claim makes sense with material that is actually illegal and not constitutionally protected anyway (from government intervention, relative to the protections of the First Amendment).

ISPs nearly always have “terms of service” or “acceptable use policy” provisions that prohibit access of illegal content through their networks. They say that they are required to report material like this to the government by law.

The TOS concept would be more troubling if a law like COPA were in effect.

Civil libertarians also point out the possibility of accidental access of illegal material, such as if clicking on a link in a comment sent to a blog to see if it is appropriate to approve. Theoretically, possession of even one image on one’s hard drive is a crime. In practice, however, to date prosecutions have involved only repeated and massive infractions of the law. The incident in today's NBC story appears to be a massive violation of the law. The possibility of framing of someone with hacking activity would seem to exist, given some of the problems (like domain name manipulation, reported on my identity protection blog) being discussed recently at the Black Hat convention in Las Vegas.

An earlier story occurred in February 2008 with a Republican Maryland General Assembly delegate from the Hagerstown area, Robert A. McKee, who resigned after his home and computer were searched and physical videotapes and printed matter were looked at as well, as in this Washington Post story (by Philip Rucker) from 2/16/2008, link here. Despite the concern that this issue could lead to wrongful searches and even prosecutions, it seems that in the major cases reported in the DC area, there really was plenty of physical evidence, outside of just IP and network tracking.

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