The strange consequences of spying

An FBI agent puts spyware on his son's laptop and inadvertently catches the school principal viewing child porn.

I'm floored by a story in Forbes about a dad who set out to spy on his son's online activities and wound up catching the school principal looking at child pornography.

Kashmir Hill tells Forbes readers the story of FBI agent Joseph Auther, who was worried about what his son was doing online and installed spyware on the boy's school-issued laptop to keep an eye on things. He installed eBlaster from SpectorSoft, which monitored his son's every IM, email and chat conversation as well as his keystrokes and website visits. Dear old Dad got nice, neat email summaries of everything his 7th grader was doing, and the child remained oblivious to the fact that he was being watched.

When Auther was relocated, he had to return the computer to the school. He took the laptop to his FBI office but his colleagues were unable to help him wipe away the spyware. He then took it to a computer repair shop to be wiped, but there was a glitch in the process and the spyware was still there when Whispering Palms principal Thomas Weindl allegedly started using it to view child pornography and other seedy sites.

An excerpt from Hill's story:

Auther didn’t tell the shop about eBlaster being on the computer -- perhaps feeling a little Big Parent shame -- but assumed that it would be wiped along with everything else. He then returned the computer to Weindl. A week later, Auther was surprised to get an email from eBlaster which had survived the attempts to kill it. The eBlaster report revealed that someone was using the computer again and that the person was much naughtier than Auther’s son had been.

The report revealed Internet searches for child pornography and visits to sexually explicit websites, including a few that featured young Asian girls having sex with older men.It was all downhill from there for Weindl. Auther and another FBI agent confronted him at his office at the school, where he admitted to viewing child porn and claimed that he had since “destroyed the [laptop] and threw the pieces in the jungle.”

Weindl was then arrested and charged with receiving child porn and with accessing child porn with an intent to view it. “When asked why he performed Google searches on 11-year-old girls, Weindl stated it was his own ‘morbid curiosity’ or ‘inappropriate curiosity,’” reports the Saipan Tribune. Whispering Palms got itself a new principal. Weindl meanwhile is trying to fight his child porn charges. He called foul on an FBI agent putting spyware on his computer without any kind of legal authorization. A judge in the District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands was unsympathetic.

A few thoughts on this:

This type of spying is an outrage. However...

I'm typically against Americans spying on Americans. One of the most egregious examples is the case of Blake J Robbins v Lower Merion School District (PA), in which laptops issued to high-school students had webcams that could be covertly activated by schools administrators who used it to spy on students and their families. But as a parent, I can't help but view Auther's case with some sympathy. I have a third and sixth grader and I worry about their Internet travels all the time. As I tell my kids when they start harping about their rights, "Until you're 18, you have no rights."

That's a hyperbolic thing to tell them, but it's my way of making them understand that there are sites that are not appropriate. Would I put spyware on the laptop to spy on them? I won't lie: I've thought of doing so, but haven't up to this point. Am I a hypocrite for considering it? Probably. But God never sent me an instruction manual to go with this parenting job.

If it ain't yours, don't mess with it.

Auther probably deserves less sympathy than I'm giving him because instead of putting spyware on a laptop that he owned or bought for family use, he loaded it onto a machine that belonged to the school district. That's a recipe for all kinds of trouble, though in this case missteps resulted in catching an alleged child porn consumer. I'd call that a happy accident.

Did you hear the one about the FBI agents who tried to screw in a lightbulb?

FBI agents are a sophisticated bunch. So why is it that no one in Auther's field office could figure out how to remove a piece of spyware? I admit I don't have all the facts here, but I ask anyway.

In conclusion:

This story is as off the wall as it gets, opening the floodgates for amusement and ridicule. But it's also a good case study as we continue to grapple with the rules of engagement in cyberspace. Procedures for dealing with potential criminal activity is one thing, but dealing with childhood Internet use remains a much tougher beast to pin down.

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