When Joseph Auther installed a spyware program on his 12-year-old son’s school laptop, he was hoping to keep tabs on his son’s Internet use and head off any potential trouble. According to Kashmir Hill at Forbes magazine, that decision set in motion a chain of events that cost his son’s school its principal; that principal his reputation, career and marriage; and the Auther family a long-time friend.
Auther, an FBI special agent stationed in the Northern Marianas Islands, installed the spyware program eBlaster on the laptop provided to his son by Whispering Palms School in Saipan in the U.S. territory of the Marianas. eBlaster sends the installer updates via email every time the person using the computer sends or receives and email or chat message and records every keystroke and every website visited as well as every search the user performs.
Months later, Auther was transfered to the FBI’s Denver office. Before turning his son’s laptop back over to the school, the agent took it to two different service centers to have the memory wiped and the spyware disabled. Nonetheless, before Auther and his family left for Colorado, he began to get notifications again.
Spyware programs are, by design, difficult to detect and disable. eBlaster had survived both wipe attempts and had awakened, sending Auther word that the user currently operating the laptop was using it to search for child pornography, including images of underage Asian girls engaged in sex with much older men. Auther didn’t know who was using the computer, but his son’s principal at Whispering Palms was a family friend, 67-year-old Thomas Weindl.
Weindl and the Auther family were close. Auther’s wife had given a reading earlier in the year at Weindl’s wedding to a Korean woman with an 11-year-old daughter.
Eric Goldman, the privacy expert who told Forbes about this story, said, “An FBI dad getting email notifications of child porn activity [is] like a gift-wrapped present for a law enforcement official.”
While he should have turned the investigation over to the FBI, Auther began to do a bit of sleuthing on his own. He called Weindl, suggesting that he wanted to buy the laptop after all. Weindl told Auther that he’d turned the machine over to Public School System (PSS), an organization that provides federally-funded laptops to students in the U.S. and helps them keep them, should they choose, when they graduate.
Auther contacted PSS, who said they’d never received the laptop, alerting Auther to the fact that Weindl was being less than forthcoming. It was then that Auther shared his findings with another FBI agent and a formal investigation began.
Weindl was arrested and charged shortly thereafter with “receiving child porn and with accessing child porn with an intent to view it.” He lost his job at Whispering Palms and has since then been trying to fight the charges against him.
According to Forbes, Judge Ramona Manglona has thus far ruled in the investigation’s favor. “Auther’s installation of eBlaster on the laptop in June 2011 was unrelated to the performance of his duties as an FBI special agent,” she wrote, summarily dispensing with Weindl’s objection that Auther had spied on him without proper legal authorization.
“Auther was acting as a devoted father, not a law enforcement officer,” she ruled. “The intrusive conduct — the installation of eBlaster — was not by the government but by Auther the private citizen,” and therefore Weindl’s rights against unreasonable search and seizure were not violated. Futhermore, Weindl was doing his child-porn surfing and procurement on a computer what was not his own, therefore he was not granted any reasonable expectation of privacy on the machine.
“Sometimes, people delude themselves into thinking that they have a right to things that don’t belong to them,” Manglona wrote. “A person cannot have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a computer he stole or obtained by fraud.”
[image via Shutterstock]