June 19, 2024

It's Ten O'Clock. Do You Know What Your Computer is Doing?

Last week saw a scary story about a British man who was acquitted of the charge of possessing child pr0n. [Deliberate misspelling to keep dumb censorware tools from blocking this site. But some censorware programs will block this anyway. Heavy Sigh.] The illegal material was on the man’s computer, but he argued that an intruder had put it there, and he presented evidence to support that defense.

Although I have no special knowledge of his particular case, I know the kind of scenario he described does really happen. At least two innocent people I know have had their computers turned by intruders into pr0n distributors.

The lesson of these incidents is that we have less control over our computers than we have over our physical territory. Nobody would turn a file drawer in your office into a distribution center for contraband; but they might do that to your computer. Inevitably, innocent people will be accused of crimes, and they will suffer, even if they are eventually acquitted. And of course, some real bad guys will get away with crimes by blaming them on nonexistent intruders.

The best way to address this kind of problem is to make sure that people retain control – in practice as well as in theory – over their own computers. When we erode that control, whether we do so by technical or legal means, we are making the bad guys’ jobs easier.