The incident, detailed on Friday, cost a man a longtime family friend.
Joseph Auther is an FBI special agent that had been stationed in the Northern Marianas Islands. He installed eBlaster, a spyware program on his 12-year-old son’s school laptop, hoping to keep abreast on his son’s Internet activity and head off any questionable usage. The laptop was provided to his son by Whispering Palms School in Saipan in the U.S. territory of the Marianas.
eBlaster updates the "administrator" updates via email every time the person using the computer sends or receives email or chat messages; it also records every keystroke and every website visited as well as every search the user performs.
None of this, so far, would seem to involve anyone but Auther's son. However, months after installing eBlaster, Auther was transferred to the FBI’s Denver office. Before returning his son’s laptop to the school, he took it to two different service centers to have the hard drive wiped and the spyware disabled.
However, spyware of this sort is difficult to remove. It's unclear why formatting the hard drive would not have removed the software, but apparently it did not. After turning in the laptop and before Auther and his family left for Colorado, he began to get activity notifications again.
The report Auther received showed Web searches for child pornography as well as visits to sexually explicit websites, including some that featured young Asian girls having sex with older men.
At this point, Auther should have turned the evidence over to the FBI and let them do an official investigation, but since the data was coming from a computer his son had once possessed, his curiosity overcame him. Still believing he was invested as a parent and not an FBI agent, he did some digging on his own.
The principal at Whispering Palms was a family friend, 67-year-old Thomas Weindl. Calling Weindl, Auther purported to want to buy the laptop. Auther had some reason to be concerned about his friend: earlier, Weindl had married a Korean woman with an 11-year-old daughter.
However, Weindl told Auther that he’d turned the machine over to Public School System (PSS), an organization that provides federally-funded laptops to students at public and private schools, and lets them keep them if they graduate. Flashing his badge at the PSS, Auther discovered the PSS had no record of the laptop being returned.
Another conversation with Weindl ended with the principal telling the FBI agent that "some hanky panky" was going on at PSS, but Auther believed PSS when it told him the laptop had not been returned. Finally, Auther shared his findings with another FBI agent and opened an official investigation.
Weindl was arrested and charged with “receiving child porn and with accessing child porn with an intent to view it.” While admitting the crime, he claimed he had “destroyed the [laptop] and threw the pieces in the jungle.”
Weindl lost his job at Whispering Palms; he has since been trying to fight the charges against him.
Judge Ramona Manglona said:
Auther’s installation of eBlaster on the laptop in June 2011 was unrelated to the performance of his duties as an FBI special agent. Auther was acting as a devoted father, not a law enforcement officer. The intrusive conduct -- the installation of eBlaster -- was not by the government but by Auther the private citizen.Additionally, was doing his illicit surfing and procurement on a computer not his own; therefore he was not to be granted any reasonable expectation of privacy on the laptop.
Sometimes, people delude themselves into thinking that they have a right to things that don’t belong to them. A person cannot have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a computer he stole or obtained by fraud.It is true, the judge added, that had the laptop been assigned to Weindl, he would have had a higher expectation of privacy.
- Lesson learned: don't surf for child porn of the computer does not belong to you.
- Lesson learned: don't surf for child porn period.
- Lesson learned: don't trust some shop to remove sensitive information from your hard drive. There's no way eBlaster would have survived a hard drive formatting. We would normally, in fact, not just format the drive but then perform multiple wipes with a program that overwrites all the sectors.