Surfing the Internet lately has become more like strolling through a digital minefield. Viruses, Trojan horses, and malware (malicious software) are some of the familiar hazards of browsing the Web.
But while those simply mean trouble for your computer, these days, download disasters can mean trouble with the law.
Attorneys who specialize in defending clients accused of possessing computer contraband like child pornography or pirated music, report a growing number of cases involving unintended acquisition of the illegal material.
"It is becoming an increasing problem," says Minnesota lawyer Maury Beaulier.
Beaulier recently had a case of a young man who was downloading files from a file-sharing program. Shortly afterwards, his computer crashed and he took it in for repair. Using recovery software, the repair center observed file names they suspected to be child pornography, and the police were called. Search warrants were issued, his computer was seized, and the man was charged with possession of the illegal material. He said he had done a search for files relating to the band The Sex Pistols, when the offending material landed on his computer and he did everything he could to erase it.
According to Beaulier, the young man could not afford a protracted legal battle, so he agreed to a plea with no jail time. But he is now labeled "a criminal sexual offender."
How can this happen? It starts with the fact that most Internet users do not understand how their computer and the Web interact. For instance, computer security experts say that many are unaware that a visit to a Web site leaves an almost indelible record on a computer's hard drive.
Images from a Web site are stored or "cached" in a directory so that the browser — the part of a computer that drives Web surfing — does not have to reload every element of that page, should you call it up again. And even if a user clears this directory, computer forensics specialists can retrieve records from it.
Often, just clicking on a Web site can initiate a download of unwanted material, particularly if the user has been lured to that site through a pop-up ad or "blot."
Beaulier says the danger of getting unintended material "becomes more pronounced when computer users interact with other online users through peer-to-peer programs, or by downloading documents from newsgroups or chat rooms." The reason is that files on these sources appear only as a link with a name that may or may not reveal its content. But the user has to download the file before he can see what's in it.
Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security lawyer, points out that the peer-to-peer sites — with names like LimeWire, MP3 Rocket or Kazaa — that link computers in file-sharing networks, can be particularly fertile ground for unsophisticated users to get into trouble.
"Maybe you're downloading music, movies or software from sites like LimeWire or the rest. And along with it comes sometimes porn or, sometimes, spyware that'll put porn or something else on your computer," says Aftab. "It could be you are downloading pictures or images, thinking that's all you are getting and together with it comes porn or marketing materials."