Thanks to spyware, an FBI dad got a gift-wrapped child porn case.

Like any dad, Joseph Auther was worried about what his son might get up to while exploring the wilds of the World Wide Web. So when his 7th grade son got a school-provided laptop from Whispering Palms School in Saipan in the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands, Auther decided to install a monitoring program on it. He went with a spyware program called eBlaster from SpectorSoft, a company based in Vero Beach, Florida. Unbeknownst to his son, the program captured his website visits, his keystrokes, and every email, chat, and instant message he sent and received. This was all delivered up to his dad in emails, while giving the monitored person no hint that it was doing so.

Auther has a special appreciation for the benefits of surveillance. He’s an FBI special agent. In April, he discovered he was being transferred to the FBI office in Denver. At the end of the school year, Auther let Whispering Palms principal Thomas Weindl know that his family was moving and that they would be returning the school’s laptop. Weindl, 67, was actually a friend of the Auther family; when he got married earlier that year, Auther’s wife gave a reading at the ceremony. Auther told Weindl that he would return the laptop after he removed all of his son’s files, programs, and games.

Auther first took the laptop to his FBI office and asked his colleagues how to wipe it clean. Apparently they don’t have many cyber experts in the Mariana Islands, because they were unsuccessful. So Auther had to instead take it to a computer repair shop, which cleaned out the old files and allegedly re-imaged the hard drive to return it to its original settings. 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. SpectorSoft claims that eBlaster is as easy to remove as any other program, such as Microsoft Word, though the company wouldn’t comment on this case or elaborate on exactly how to remove it. I consulted computer geek friends who suggested that a re-imaging should have removed it, but that the computer repair shop may not have done a good job of 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.

“An FBI dad getting email notifications of child porn activity [is] like a gift-wrapped present for a law enforcement official,” noted tech law prof Eric Goldman, who brought the case to my attention.

While Auther wasn’t sure who was using the computer, he became suspicious of Weindl based on the type of porn involved because Weindl had “married a Korean woman, and he now had an 11-year-old Korean stepdaughter,” according to court documents. That seems like the point at which Auther should have opened an official FBI investigation, but that’s not what happened.

Continue reading at Forbes….


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