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Illinois Requires Computer Technicians to Report Child Porn

October 08, 2008 10:43 AM
by Denis Cummings
Advocates say the law is needed to combat child porn, but others are worried that it may lead to innocent people being prosecuted.

Illinois Passes New Child Pornography Law

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The legislation, signed Friday by Ill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, contains several provisions designed to protect children from being exploited, but one has created a controversy. It requires computer technicians to alert law enforcement officials if they find child pornography on a client’s computer, according to a release from the Illinois State Police.

“It’s not acceptable if you’re a computer technician to say, well, it’s none of my business and then move on to the next customer,” explained state Sen. A.J. Wilhemi, D-Joliet, who sponsored the bill, according to the Chicago Tribune. “We have to take a collective approach to combating this insidious industry.”

The law is an extension of an existing law that required photo processors to report child pornography in photos they processed. Like photo processors, technicians who fail to call police or e-mail the attorney general face a $1,000 fine.

Illinois became the sixth state to pass such a law, joining Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina and South Dakota. Two other states, Maine and Michigan, are considering similar bills.

The laws have drawn criticism from civil liberties groups and others, who argue that they infringe upon the computer owner’s privacy rights, force technicians to spy on their clients, and will cause many innocent people to be investigated.

Opinion & Analysis: Debating the law

There have been many critics of the laws requiring technicians to report child porn since the first one was enacted in 2001. South Carolina’s pioneering law was criticized mainly because it made computer technicians responsible for enforcing child pornography laws, a job that they were not trained to do.

“There’s a problem whenever you ask civilians to enforce the law,” said Parry Aftab, executive director of Cyberangels, an anti-child porn advocacy group. “You don’t want this to be a witch-hunt.”

Many worry that computer technicians, in fear of being fined, will report any image that can be interpreted as child pornography, leading to many innocent people being falsely accused. Jeanne Sager explained in her parenting blog, Strollerderby, that it’s easy for a parent to upload a picture that may be misconstrued as pornography, which might also be sent to a grandparent, relative or family friend.

“A technician pouring through a computer … isn’t there when a picture is taken,” she writes. “He doesn’t know your godchild likes to strip down to her skivvies. He doesn’t know your grandson is a pint-sized exhibitionist.”

Civil liberties groups have also complained that the laws violate the computer owner’s privacy rights. “To turn computer repairmen into spies, to enlist them in reviewing the private contents of the computers they repair, undermines our Fourth Amendment freedom from unreasonable search and seizure,” said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.

An editorial in the Portland Press Herald responded to these kinds of concerns. “These freedoms are important and should be defended,” it said. “But they are hardly imperiled when a person in possession of child pornography voluntarily gives the computer containing it to a repair person for work. It strains credulity to think that privacy protections apply in those circumstances.”
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