Thursday, April 3, 2008

Does Not Compute

originally published in the Hartford Advocate May 24, 2007

Does Not Compute

One legislator wants to enlist computer techs in the war against child abuse. But should techs be scanning your computer while they fix it?

By Jennifer Abel

Chances are good that when you see evil a part of your mind screams, "Do something!" And when that evil’s done to a child, the bit of your brain that evolved to protect the next generation chimes in: "Yes, do something NOW!" Such urges are part of being human, but if you’re not careful they lead to the state of mind that’s made "Think of the children! Won’t someone please think of the children?" such a comedy cliché.

That said, children do need someone to think of them from time to time. Therefore, section 17a-101 of Connecticut’s general statutes defines a class of people known as mandated reporters, whose professions instill in them the legal (as opposed to merely moral) obligation to report child abuse to the authorities.

Mandated reporters include counselors and therapists, coaches and day-care workers, school and medical personnel — basically, anyone whose work puts children in their care. And state Representative Tim O’Brien recently proposed adding another job to the list: computer service technicians.

The addition was added to House Bill 7408, one of the many proto-laws that float about during the average legislative session. O’Brien said in an e-mail interview, "This issue was brought to my attention by New Britain Police Sgt. James Wardwell, who is an expert in the arrest of online sexual predators. I have attached a statement by him in support of this legislation."

The statement is actually an April 4 letter Wardwell wrote to the General Assembly. Five states already have legislation requiring techies to report child pornography when they find it; Wardwell and O’Brien want Connecticut to go further and mandate the reporting of any form of child abuse or neglect. (Though how much non-porn abuse would be found on a computer is debatable; few people who neglect their children, for example, keep files saying, "To do today: not feed offspring again.")

James Wardwell is a forensic computer examiner who’s worked on a depressingly large number of severe crimes against children, including sexual assault. His letter to the General Assembly says, "One of the most disturbing child abuse cases I investigated all started by one individual reporting … what he saw. The ensuing investigation identified three additional young children who were actively being drugged and raped."

You’d think a cop who’s spent his career tracking down such criminals would become jaded and cynical. Not Wardwell: He’s a friendly guy who’s pretty laid-back when not actively pursuing a case. And he firmly believes that adding computer techs to the mandated-reporter list would save untold numbers of children.

It’s true that many, if not most, child pornography cases began when someone reported something he’d found on a computer. But these reports took place without a law requiring them.

Paula Baldwin is a spokesperson for Best Buy and its "Geek Squad" of computer-repair agents. She wrote in an e-mail that all Geek Squad employees are trained in protocols governing what to do if child porn is found on someone’s computer, but at the same time nobody goes looking for it.

"It is important to understand that Geek Squad Agents are never to search the content of a customer’s computer and are instructed to only open those files that are necessary to perform the service … requested by the customer," Baldwin said. "In the event that child pornographic materials are discovered … [we] inform management and notify the appropriate authorities."

While Baldwin stressed that Geek Squad members only look at the files needed to do their jobs, O’Brien and Wardwell were just as quick to add they’d never dream of asking anyone to do otherwise.

"The IT person should never go beyond the scope of their normal job," Wardwell said in a phone interview with the Advocate. "They shouldn’t go hunting for [illegal files] … only whatever they come across over the normal course of their activity."

O’Brien agreed. "It is certainly not my intention that the technicians would take on the role of investigators."

Ray Kaplan of Kaplan Computer Repair in Manchester is a little skeptical of such claims. He’s never found child pornography on a client’s computer, but says that "we’ve had local law enforcement — I won’t say which departments — come in and say ‘if a gentleman fitting a certain description comes in, can you look for this.’"

They had a warrant, right?

"They didn’t have a warrant. Look, I’m a dad. I have five daughters. I don’t want [kids getting hurt], but where do they cross the line? What if a guy’s got a young girlfriend — they don’t wear signs saying ‘I’m 17, I’m 18.’ … How do we know if a girl’s 16 or 19? So I report the guy — he’s not doing anything illegal, and now his wife’s going to divorce him. … Is he going to sue me?"

No. He can’t. The whole point of the proposal, according to O’Brien, isn’t even to force computer guys to do the right thing, but "to offer the cover of state law" to anyone who makes a good-faith report of suspicions of abuse.

So Kaplan couldn’t be sued, but he worries about the impact on his business all the same. "Are people going to bring their computers into a store where they think we’ll look through all their photos?"

Most people who find evidence of a child being assaulted or raped will report this to the police, law or no law. As for those who wouldn’t — according to O’Brien’s bill, if a technician found child pornography and did not report it, he’d face a fine of between $500 and $2,500, and mandatory attendance at an education program run by the Commissioner of Children and Families.

So how effective would this new law would be? If someone’s callous enough to do nothing when he knows a child’s being raped, is the threat of a fine and a seminar enough to spur him to action?

When asked, O’Brien reiterated his earlier point about protecting those who make reports in good faith. "Sgt. Wardwell can probably best elaborate on how the legislation can expand the number of incidents reported," he said.

Wardwell’s elaboration: "I think knowing there is legislation and knowing society takes [child porn] seriously will help to that end. It may not change his morality."

And one more question: Since O’Brien keeps emphasizing that this is about protecting good-faith reports rather than compelling them, why not ignore the entire mandated-reporter idea and simply push a bill offering immunity to anyone making an abuse report in good faith?

"The problem with the approach you suggest is that it would imply that it is not … important to report all instances of sexual abuse against children," O’Brien responded.

The current mandated-reporter statute directs the Commissioner of Children and Families to develop educational programs for said reporters. However, the skills required to recognize signs of abuse in a child with whom you interact have nothing to do with what computer service people do at their jobs. Would computer technicians be required to attend these classes?

O’Brien said no, and the legislation would (if necessary) be reworded to specify this. He added: "I consider this legislation to be an alternative to the highly flawed ‘MySpace’ legislation. … Blumenthal’s pushing the MySpace bill to regulate social networking sites, forcing people to identify themselves or use credit cards" to join.

So matters stood as of May 17. The next day, O’Brien called the Advocate to report that HB 7408 had died in committee, but either he or another representative would re-introduce it in the near future.

However, O’Brien said, after talking with attorneys he decided the new proposal, when it arrives, will differ from the attachment to the now-defunct HB 7408.

"To clarify all the issues … it will be outside of the mandated-reporter statute. … They’ll be required to report, but the sanctions that exist in the statute won’t be there. The attorney recommended … immunity. It’ll be a legal obligation, but no sanction, and they’ll be protected from liability." In other words, computer technicians will be required to report evidence of abuse, but if they don’t the law has no teeth with which to bite them.

"It sounds like a well-meaning, good idea that would be impossible to work," Ray Kaplan says. "Someone into that sort of thing … the possibility of them labeling a file ‘child porn’ is small. … I mean, anyone with three flickering brain cells would disguise the file."