Today's lesson in tech stupidity -- and much uglier topics -- is brought to us by Thomas Weindl, former principal of the Whispering Palms School in Saipan, which is located in the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands.
The lesson, in a nutshell: If you're a school principal, you should not go out on the Web looking for kiddie porn. (Nor should anyone else, obviously.) But if you decide to do that anyway for reasons that surpass understanding, you shouldn't do it using a laptop containing spyware installed by the FBI.
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Kashmir Hill, author of The Not-So Private Parts blog for Forbes, has the skinny. It seems federal agent Joe Auther's seventh-grade son was a student at Whispering Palms and had been issued a laptop by the school. Auther, suspicious by nature, installed SpectorSoft's eBlaster software on the laptop. This $100 piece of spyware can email reports every hour on everything the kid is doing with that computer, including Web surfing histories and any keystrokes entered.
When the school year ends, Auther wants to return the laptop to the school minus any data or software. He brings it to a local computer shop to have the hard drive wiped and reformatted before turning it back in. Apparently, tech shops in Saipan have a different definition of "wipe" -- a couple of weeks later, Auther starts getting more emails from eBlaster. This time, it's telling him someone has been searching for kiddie porn and has visited sites containing same.
This is the point where concerned parent Auther turns into concerned federal agent Auther. He tries to track down who's using the laptop to seek out illegal images. His first suspect is Principal Weindl -- because Weindl has a stepdaughter who matches the profile of the images he was searching for. (I warned you this would get ugly.)
This is also where the story gets a little weird. Instead of opening an official FBI investigation, Auther decides to try and run a sting on the principal, whom he knows socially. Per Hill:
Auther then called Weindl, pretending he wanted to buy the laptop, to find out whose possession the computer was in. Weindl claimed the laptop had been returned to the Public School System, an agency that provides federally funded laptops to students at public and private schools, and lets them keep them if they graduate. Auther continued his informal investigation. He stopped by the PSS office, where he showed his FBI credentials, and found out the laptop had not in fact been returned. He also contacted his Internet service provider to see if it could tell him, based on IP information in the eBlaster report, where the laptop was being used. They refused to disclose that to him, even though "he may have shown his FBI credentials" to them.
Meanwhile, Auther continued to get email alerts from eBlaster indicating illegal activity. Eventually he brought another fed in and notified the local attorney general. The two agents confronted Weindl in his office, who then admitted to searching for the illegal images to satisfy his "morbid curiosity" but claimed he'd then broken the laptop into pieces and "tossed it into the jungle."