A New Urban Legend

Perhaps you’ve already heard about the the case of Michael Fiola. Apparently, he got a new laptop from his employers, and shortly thereafter, the employer’s IT people measured very heavy Internet use. They took the laptop, checked it and found kiddie porn in the temporary Internet files. He got fired from his job and was going to be criminally prosecuted for it.

This person hired an independent forensic computer investigator who then examined the laptop in question. She found some malware (including one item, DriveCleaner, which promised to clean up dubious behavior), a few Javascripts, and an antivirus program that didn’t update itself. She also raised a few other questions as to how competent the employer’s IT was and the thoroughness of the initial investigation, along with some really dubious assertions. This led the local prosecutors to drop the case, saying:

“The overall forensics of the laptop suggest that it had been compromised by a virus,” said Jake Wark, spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley.

Oh. Really.

This man has just become the patron saint of porn magnets.

Now I understand that proving a heinous crime like child pornography beyond a reasonable doubt through technical means to a non-technical jury is a very rough task.

I also understand that I am not omniscient, and might not know every nasty trick in the book.

But I’ve cleaned out more than a few porn stables in my life, and this story smells badly.

Why? The gentleman in question says that he was completely unaware that anything porny was going on with his computer, literally until the moment he got fired.

I have never, ever seen nor heard of any adware/malware program/virus which downloads pornographic images to a computer in such a manner that the user is completely unaware of it.

Yes, there are some adware programs (which, let’s face it, you don’t pick up from websites like PokemonWorld) which will pump porn popups onto your computer, and yes, such pictures would end up in the temporary Internet files, but . . . you don’t notice when pictures of kids being naked or having sex start popping up on your screen, apparently for several months? If so, you must have an interesting lifestyle.

Now if there were such a beast that could secretly do this, one would think the computer expert would mention its name, and how it worked, but no. Until someone does, I think it’s safe to call this vaporware.

No, what I would guess likely happened is that somebody went prowling around some dubious places, not necessarily porn-related, but not CNN.com, either. Maybe he prowled around a lot, or maybe just a little before getting an infection which did start pumping porn popups. The person then tried to clean things up as best as he knew how. If he was getting popups, he probably cleaned up enough to stop the popups, but he or whatever program he decided to use didn’t clean everything up. When the machine got pulled, the investigator went looking for porn and found it, then thought his or her job was done. That person didn’t have a clue on how to legally document just how it got there, and when a third-party with an obvious interest in advocating for her client pointed out some real and maybe not-so-real problems, an even more clueless DA staff folded.

Now I could be wrong, and even if I’m right, I’d have to have a whole lot more evidence to back this supposition up before going to court. I certainly don’t know enough based on a few news reports to be able to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and I’m not going to judge whether he should have been prosecuted or even fired, since none of us know enough about the details to judge. I’m just saying this story as told is very, very shaky.

However, the general media take on this case seems to be “The man was obviously innocent,” even the technical media.

This looks more like a botched prosecution rather than any travesty of justice, but that’s not even the great harm caused by this case. What this case does is create a new urban legend that there’s viruses out there that can secretly download porn. This will terrify many innocent people while every porn downloader now will think he has a ready-made excuse when caught.

We shall see if “the virus downloaded that porn” becomes the adult equivalent of “the dog ate my homework.”


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