Law could add computer techs to ‘porn police’

Posted Aug. 05, 2008, at 12 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine&nbsp- Some states require computer repair technicians to inform police if they find what appears to be child pornography on computers they are repairing for customers, and some lawmakers believe Maine should do the same.

“We have a serious child pornography problem in the state, this nation and this world, “said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, co-chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee. “We need to do everything we can to find the people that are engaging in that illegal activity.”

He said that includes adding computer technicians to the “mandated reporter” list already in state law that requires various professionals in certain occupations to report suspected child abuse to police.

“We do it with doctors and teachers,” Diamond said. “I see this as no different.”

Neither does Geoffrey Rushlau, the district attorney for Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc and Waldo counties who also serves as president of the Maine Prosecutors Association.

“I would say the mandated reporting we have has worked well,” he said. “Many of the prosecutions have come from those reports, but I can’ t give you hard data on how many.”

He said it is clear that child pornography is illegal and that possession of it in any form is a serious crime at state and federal levels.

Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, a member of the Criminal Justice Committee, said he is as concerned as anyone about child abuse, and agreed that child pornography is child abuse. He has concerns, however, about adding computer technicians to the list of mandated reporters.

“Somewhere, it seems to me, you have to have a connection with real harm,” he said. “You’ re running into some fairly dicey areas as far as I am concerned.”

Sherman said those mandated to report possible abuse now are in positions to assess that some child is actually being harmed or is at risk of being harmed. He said an image on a computer may be a real image, or may be one created.

“I don’ t think we want technicians being asked to decide what may be real or not,” Sherman said.

The Maine Civil Liberties Union shares that concern. Staff attorney Zach Heiden said he believes such mandated reporting could violate the protections provided by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which bars unreasonable searches on a person or that person’ s possessions.

“Lawlessness breeds lawlessness and I don’ t think we want that in Maine,” he said.

Diamond points out the courts have upheld mandated reporting as not being a violation of constitutional rights. He said current law requires commercial film and photo processors to report suspected child pornography to police.

“I really don’ t see this as any different,” Diamond said.

But Heiden said simply because child pornography is illegal does not mean a computer repair technician is qualified to decide an image is indeed of a child that is being abused.

“I don’ t think we can expect a computer repairperson to be able to do that without considerable training,” he said. Heiden said he agreed with Sherman that technology has advanced to a point where lifelike images can be created entirely by software, and that an image appearing to be a child being abused may not be a picture of a real child.

“To require people to spy on their neighbors or their customers sends the wrong message,” he said. “We shouldn’ t be doing things like that in Maine.”

Diamond said it is not spying on neighbors to report a crime. He said most Mainers agree they should report criminal behavior to police. Rushlau agreed, saying there have been instances in the past of commercial film developers contacting police when they have developed or printed pictures that appeared to be child pornography.

“I can’ t remember the specifics of the cases, but I do remember a few of them,” he said.

David Clough, with the National Federation of Independent Businesses in Maine, said many computer technicians are self-employed or work for a small business. He said any legislation needs to be written carefully to avoid liability issues for the technicians that comply with the law.

“There are a lot of issues here, delicate issues that need to be resolved,” Clough said. “What is reportable, what isn’ t is not an easy call, and we are talking computer repairmen, not lawyers.”

Six states have laws requiring computer technicians or Internet service providers to report child pornography if they encounter it in the scope of their work. At least two states are considering similar measures this year.

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