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Child Porn and E-Mail
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By now you've probably heard about the Boy Scout program director arrested for owning and distributing explicit child pornography.

On his latest show, Bill Maher said this about it:

But here's the thing. I'm actually – he is – underage sex is completely vile. We all agree on that. I took R Kelly right off my Christmas card list when that shit went down. [laughter] But this guy is really being sent to jail for a thought-crime. Okay? It's not a good thing to do, to look at pictures of boys, but it is – we have to pause here and say, okay, we are sending someone to jail for looking at pictures. He never tried to contact kids. He never gave them "Jesus Juice." He never said, 'I have a Ferris Wheel at my house.' [laughter] He didn't do anything. It is a thought crime.

Now, I think it's stupid to say he didn't do anything. He's not being sent to jail for thinking about naked children engaged in sex acts. I'm not even sure he's going to jail at this point. But he's being tried for owning and distributing child pornography. The fact is, as a consumer of the stuff, he's continuing or increasing demand for it, which means more kids will be exploited. So is he as bad as the people who photograph it first-hand? Of course not.

Just as with drugs, it makes more sense to go after suppliers than end-users. That doesn't mean the end-user still isn't engaging in illegal activities. And in the case of this analogy, he wasn't just using...he was distributing.

The case you may not have heard much about is this one:

On March 23, a team of investigators entered Detective Lance McConnell's Lockhart home.

According to a search warrant, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children got a tip from AOL. The Internet provider claimed a subscriber was trying to e-mail child pornography.

Investigators with the state attorney general's cyber crimes unit documented several attempts between Oct. 5th and Oct. 11 of 2004. All were linked to McConnell's home and credit card.

Thing is...Lance was my best friend in elementary school (we're the same age). I haven't talked to him in years, so I don't really know other than what I've read in the papers.

The cases actually sound pretty similar though.

And even though I disagree with Maher that this is a "thought crime" and should apparently be overlooked, one thing that disturbs me about McConnell's case is how authorities were alerted to him. The story I linked above, and others, indicate that it was AOL that actually became aware of the porn and contacted National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Okay. So is AOL monitoring user email for content? On their website, it gives a general overview of their privacy policy, but says:

The AOL Internet online service has a separate privacy policy for its members. If you are a member of the AOL service, you can find that policy within AOL's Terms of Service (AOL keyword "TOS"). Other AOL products and services may also have their own privacy policies, which you should review when you use these services.

So you can't find out their e-mail privacy policy until you're a member? Huh?

Here is GMail's privacy policy.

Google employees do not access the content of any mailboxes unless you specifically request them to do so (for example, if you are having technical difficulties accessing your account) or if required by law, to maintain our system, or to protect Google or the public.

Okay...well that last bit about protecting the public is pretty broad. Does that mean that Google can legally screen attachments for evidence of illegal activities?

I'm no lawyer, and I'm not a black helicopter type...but it seems to me that e-mail should carry the same level of privacy as regular mail (i.e., no one, especially the service provider, should be opening and viewing the contents of my mail or attachments).

When I first heard McConnell's story, I though it was the other way around, that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children tipped off AOL. I have no problem with people from nonprofits posing as pedophiles or consumers of child porn in order to catch others. In fact, it's admirable.

But according to the news stories, that's not what happened here. AOL were the first ones to find out. And I'd like to know how.

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