Saturday, January 20, 2007

Why Julie Amero Matters - Computers in Society

"Freedom begins when you tell Mrs Grundy to fly a kite" -- Robert Heinlein, The Notebooks of Lazarus Long

This is a follow-up to my previous post on the Julie Amero case.

A few months ago my son, an EO Smith student, was studying Arthur Miller's "The Crucible". He wandered around the house for weeks wrestling with the play. "What does burning witches have to do with today?" I'm sure he wasn't the only student who couldn't quite resolve the issue... yet.

The Julie Amero case is yet another Crucible being played out in small town America. It represents the eternal tension between those who live in a world they cannot understand and those whose very existence adds complexity, risk, and the temptations of the unknown chance.

Her case is a threat to computers in any classroom. Computer manufacturers such as Gateway, Dell, and others should look hard at what's going on here. You see, what teacher will ever turn on a computer in class if the risk is that they can be prosecuted and jailed for life because of malware? The answer is no one.

And her case is a threat because any international terrorist who is sophisticated enough to hijack an online PC (and they are) can blackmail, smear, or humiliate any priest, police officer, teacher, lawyer, whoever by letting the American public lynch them. Without firing a shot, innocent Americans on any stripe can be targeted and quite easily disengaged without a trace of manipulation being left behind to incriminate the real culprits.

Our obligation to the new generations of American children must be to teach them that objectionable stuff exists in cyberspace and they'll need to confront it. In Ashford, from an early age, our kids pass a poster that asserts "Character is what you do when no one is looking". At the high school level, one can only hope that message is reinforced by trusting students to exercise good internet habits.

But prosecutions such as Julie Amero's affect all private citizens who own computers. Who can explain all of the garbage that accumulates on their home computers? I'll venture to guess very few.

The key, of course, is that we engage them in the internet, and computers, and the risks that represents. We cannot, anywhere in America, assume guilt when a human is associated with automated behaviors on a computer or browser.

I hope Joe Courtney is made aware of this case and works for legislation that addresses the need for protections for Americans who are being prosecuted on morality charges as though the actions of an infected computer are willful actions of an individual who happens to be there at the time. We have long passed the threshold of being able to attribute - without a shadow of a doubt - whether a computer user is wholly aware of what may be happening under the covers of their own machine.

It is time, once again, to end the witch-hunts.

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