How A Pop-Up Ad Can Destroy Your Life

A close friend told me of the surreal story of Julie Amero, a substitute teacher from Mystic, Conn, who was working in a Norwich 7th grade class and is now convicted of exposing minors to pornography (the actual charges are four counts of risking injury to a minor), all because she couldn’t get the pop-up windows to close and wasn’t thinking clearly enough to decide to turn off the computer. Why were there pornographic pop-ups on a school computer? Because the school had not updated its filters. Both The New York Times and the PC Magazine recently covered the story. From The New York Times:

Julie Amero, a substitute teacher at a middle school in Norwich, Conn., said she had simply wanted to e-mail her husband. The authorities contend that she was — purposely or, perhaps, carelessly — exposing 11- and 12-year-old students to pornography rather than teaching them English.

Last month, Ms. Amero was convicted in Norwich Superior Court of four counts of risking injury to a child and faces up to 40 years in prison at a sentencing hearing scheduled for March 2. She has insisted on her innocence, refusing to accept a plea bargain that would have allowed her to walk free. She portrays herself as a hapless technophobe too clueless to unplug a wayward computer.

Ms. Amero, 40, a longtime substitute, contends that when she arrived that day in October 2004, she asked the regular seventh-grade language arts teacher at Kelly Middle School if she could use his computer to e-mail her husband. But first, she says, she went to the bathroom, and when she returned, the teacher was gone and students were gathered around the screen, watching a hairstyle Web site.

When she tried to close the site, what she got was an endless barrage of pop-up ads for pornography sites. The images continued all day, since “I absolutely have no clue about computers,� she said in an interview.

Ms. Amero plans to appeal, and she says lawyers have offered to handle the appeal free.

School administrators and prosecutors have accused her of everything from spending too much time staring at the computer to deliberately surfing pornography sites, and have pointed out that if she was an unwitting victim of an Internet bombardment, she should have fetched help, blocked the screen or, at least, unplugged the machine.

“She could have turned off the computer,� the assistant state’s attorney, David J. Smith, said in his closing arguments. Ms. Amero insisted during cross-examination that she had never turned off a computer herself and did not even know how to turn off a monitor.

An Internet chatter campaign has made Ms. Amero something of a cause célèbre for Luddites worldwide.

Several computer experts who have followed the case said programs known as spyware and malware could have hijacked the machine’s browser so that it visited pornography sites without prompting and created the computer logs that helped convict Ms. Amero.

Craig Ellison, an industry analyst who once ran the computer labs at PC magazine, warned in an interview, “These types of things can happen,� especially “if you’re using a very old system.� [full text]

From PC Magazine’s John Dvorak:

[…] This brings me to an incident that happened in the Kelly Middle School in the apparently backward community of Norwich, Connecticut. There, a substitute teacher was on a school computer and ran into a pop-up porn storm. I haven’t seen one of these for years, since pop-ups are easily blocked with Firefox. But, apparently, they still exist. [full text]

I’ve never thought of Norwich, Connecticut as a backward community. I’m from Connecticut and I like to think we don’t perpetrate these kinds of witch hunts anymore. But apparently I’m wrong. Julie Amero is scheduled to be sentenced to possibly 40 years in prison on May 15th. You can learn more about her case at Wikipedia here. The Defense fund for Julie Amero has a webpage here.