Thursday, October 13, 2011

Be careful about forwarding or even receiving (and opening with html) "illegal" emails

Today, on the books blog, I reviewed Helen Schulman’s “This Beautiful Life”. I was struck by the enormous problems, including legal ones, for forwarding one email with “illegal images” that a minor (in the fictitious setting) had made about herself.

The problem in the novel occurs with forwarding from a laptop rather than a cell phone, but the legal implications could be similar.

If one receives an illegal image by email, it could be illegal to “possess” it.  One can reduce the risk by not viewing mail that seems to be spam, or by not viewing questionable emails with html enabled or links enabled, and certainly not opening suspicious attachments.  If one believes he or she has an illegal image in the browser, the cache should be deleted.  If one deletes a file known to be “illegal”, one must also empty a recycle bin. Still, forensics may find the image.

The problem comes up in the context of increasing debate over warrantless examination of Internet activity, which could cause police to get a warrant to actually search a particular computer.  While generally the concerns over privacy and the 4th Amendment are well founded, sometimes investigations of unusual crimes or terror threats could lead into this area, and sometimes unusual audit trails (involving spam blogs with illegal images) are found. This may be the case with a couple of  (still unsolved) major crimes that occurred in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC in late 2008, for example. 

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