School-porn case raises computer, spyware questions

Spyware hijacked classroom computer, teacher claims

As she awaits a possible 40-year prison term, the case of Julie Amero, the substitute teacher in the U.S. convicted of exposing seventh-graders to Internet porn, has gained national attention from school IT administrators.

From the start, Amero has protested that she's innocent, contending that spyware hijacked her classroom computer in explaining the pornographic pop-ups that some seventh-graders at Kelly Middle School saw on Oct. 19, 2004. However, a jury last January convicted Amero on four counts of risk of injury to a minor. She awaits sentencing June 6, having turned down a plea deal in which she could have avoided prison.

Some IT administrators for K-12 schools say they're inclined to believe that spyware did hijack Amero's network-based computer to display the pornographic pop-ups. That's because on the high-speed LANs that connect their schools to the Internet, these IT administrators find themselves going into battle against spyware-controlled computers even when these computers are up-to-date on malware detection and patching.

"I can't believe they brought these charges against her," says Tom Sims, director of network services for Miami-Dade Public Schools, which has 375,000 students and 90,000 desktops that students use.

Sims believes that Amero, who herself reported the computer's strange porn pop-up-displaying behavior, is being falsely accused. "She's a victim of spyware taking over the computer to cause this to happen."

Transcripts of Amero's trial indicate that prosecutors questioned why she didn't turn off the computer when it began displaying porn. She responded she had been told not to turn the computer off. After the jury's guilty verdict, one juror publicly stated that he faulted her for not throwing her coat over the computer or unplugging it.

Sims notes that Miami-Dade has had similar computer-related events that prompted investigations, but they had never ended in criminal prosecution.

He added there was a problem once years ago when a teacher who was "a bona fide nudist" was looking at nudist images while giving a test to his classroom students, and some glimpsed what was on his computer. The teacher was fired and had his teaching credentials revoked.

The teacher's actions regarding inappropriate images in this case were deemed to be deliberate. But some hard-to-explain events may be spyware-related, adds Sims. Student behavior shouldn't be discounted either, he noted, pointing out that IT administrators are keenly aware that the students are "very computer-savvy, usually more than the teacher," and may find a way to escape Internet filters through proxy servers.

One director of information technology at a K-12 school district in California, who asked that his name not be disclosed, said he has seen some hard-to-explain computer events affecting teachers and administrators.

"We had e-mail go out once from a school secretary to parents, and with this notice, there were these risquA© pictures. It was the strangest thing. We checked but couldn't find anything, but that doesn't mean it wasn't there. The secretary was very upset. We could have called in the state agency but we didn't think that it was necessary," he said.

The anti-malware industry is also watching this case closely.

"This is a cause celebre in the anti-spyware industry," says David Perry, global director of education at Trend Micro. "I was shocked to learn this was going to trial, but others are saying, 'I want my children protected.' "

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