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Wednesday, Apr 04, 2012 - Last Blog on Earth | News

Atkins bill would force Geek Squad to report suspected child porn

Civil liberties group questions whether A.B. 1817 goes too far

By Dave Maass
Best Buy’s Geek Squad, those lovable black-tied technicians who drive around in Volkswagen Beetles painted like police cruisers, could become soldiers in the government’s war on child porn under a new bill introduced by a San Diego legislator.

nAssemblymember Toni Atkin’s A.B. 1817 would require computer technicians working for companies with at least 50 employees to report suspected child pornography they come across on clients’ drives—or else face a penalty of up to six months in jail and as much as $1,000 in fines. Atkins says it would apply to other computer professionals, too, including those who service mobile phones. (As defined in the rewrite of the law, suspected child porn would be anything that “appears” to depict someone under the age of 16 in a sexual act.)

nCalifornia law currently names 40 different occupations as “mandated reporters” who must alert the authorities if they witness suspected child abuse. Thirty-nine of those jobs are related to health, law enforcement, social services, church or education. The 40th is photographic processors, which was added to help catch child pornographers as they brought their material in for processing.

nAtkins says her bill is a needed “upgrade,” because who actually shoots on film anymore? Atkins points to a 2005 federal study that found that 96 percent of those arrested for possessing child-porn had the images in digital form, while only 18 percent possessed hard copies. She says she’s introduced the bill on behalf of the California KIDS Coalition (it stands for “Keeping Innocence Digitally Safe”), a San Diego County-based collection of child-advocacy organizations.

nBut privacy advocates may find the legislation troubling. Unlike photo processors, a computer technician isn’t being asked to directly participate in the process of producing child pornography. Instead, a computer technician is more like the plumber to whom you give the keys to your house to fix the faucet while you’re away at work. If Atkins’ bill applied to plumbers, the handyman would have to call the cops if he noticed something suspicious on your bookshelf on the way to the broken sink in the bathroom.

nHanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says computer technicians may not have the expertise to determine what is child pornography, especially in light of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the legality of so-called virtual child porn, such as images of hyper-realistic, computer-generated (i.e. not real) children . Although the bill does not require technicians to proactively scan for child porn, he says the law presents an opportunity for over-zealousness.

n “We’re turning the IT guy at the office into a quasi-law-enforcement officer who has full access and free reign on a person’s computer,” Fakhoury says. “Where we’ve traditionally required an actual reason to suspect crime before allowing search to take place, we’re now outsourcing that; we’re privatizing that search function.”

nCalifornia wouldn’t be the only state with such a law. According to the KIDS Coalition, 10 states have similar laws in effect. Best Buy has a history of cooperating with law enforcement: Possessors of child porn have been sent to prison in Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri and Texas with the assistance of the Geek Squad.

nBut, the bigger question is whether this opens the door for further digital snooping. If the Geek Squad must report suspected child porn today, will they have to report, say, suspected piracy tomorrow?

n“I think protecting children from sexual abuse is probably one of the highest priorities and doesn’t really compare to the illegal downloading of a movie,” Atkins says. “I’m sure there are those who would want to extend the bill that far, but that’s not my intention and that’s not what I’m doing today.”