SAN FRANCISCO: Of all the sinister things that Internet viruses do, this might be the worst: They can make people an unsuspecting collector of child pornography.
Heinous pictures and videos can be deposited on computers by viruses - the malicious programs better known for swiping your credit card numbers. In this twist, it's your reputation that's stolen.
Pedophiles can exploit virus-infected PCs to remotely store and view their stash without fear they'll get caught. Pranksters or someone trying to frame you can tap viruses to make it appear that you surf illegal websites.
Whatever the motivation, you get child porn on your computer - and might not realize it until police knock at your door.
'Dog ate my homework'
An Associated Press investigation found cases in which innocent people have been branded as pedophiles after their co-workers or loved ones stumbled upon child porn placed on a PC through a virus.
Their situations are complicated by the fact that actual pedophiles often blame viruses - a defense viewed with skepticism by law enforcement.
"It's an example of the old 'dog ate my homework' excuse," said Phil Malone, director of the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. "The problem is, sometimes the dog does eat your homework."
A ruined family
One case involved Michael Fiola, a former investigator with the Massachusetts agency that oversees workers' compensation.
In 2007, Fiola's bosses became suspicious after the Internet bill for his state-issued laptop showed that he used
4 1/2 times more data than his colleagues. A technician found child porn in the PC folder that stores images viewed online.
Fiola was fired and charged with possession of child pornography, which carries up to five years in prison. He endured death threats, his car tires were slashed and he was shunned by friends.
Fiola and his wife fought the case, spending $250,000 on legal fees. They liquidated their savings, took a second mortgage and sold their car.
An inspection for his defense revealed the laptop was severely infected. It was programmed to visit as many as 40 child porn sites per minute - an inhuman feat. While Fiola and his wife were out to dinner one night, someone logged on to the computer and porn flowed in for a half hour.
Prosecutors performed another test and confirmed the defense findings. The charge was dropped - 11 months after it was filed. "It ruined my life, my wife's life and my family's life," he says.
The Massachusetts attorney general's office, which charged Fiola, declined interview requests.
Pedophiles on the prowl
At any moment, about 20 million of the estimated 1 billion Internet-connected PCs worldwide are infected with viruses that could give hackers full control, according to security software maker F-Secure Corp. Computers often get infected when people open e-mail attachments from unknown sources or visit a malicious Web page.
Pedophiles can tap viruses in several ways. The simplest is to force someone else's computer to surf child porn sites, collecting images along the way. Or a computer can be made into a warehouse for pictures and videos that can be viewed remotely when the PC is online.
"They're kind of like locusts that descend on a cornfield: They eat up everything in sight and they move on to the next cornfield," said Eric Goldman, academic director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University.
"Computers are not to be trusted," said Jeremiah Grossman, founder of WhiteHat Security Inc. He describes it as "painfully simple" to get a computer to download something the owner doesn't want - whether it's a program that displays ads or one that stores illegal pictures. "Just because it's there doesn't mean the person intended for it to be there - whatever it is, child porn included."