Are Computer Viruses Sending Innocent People to Jail?

CYBERSPACE—While the number of people being charged with offenses having to do with the downloading and viewing of images of child sexual abuse—also referred to as "child pornography"—seems to have exploded over the past few years, evidence suggests that a considerable percentage of the accused might in fact be innocent victims of computer viruses surreptitiously placed on their computers.

"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 Web sites," reports the AP. "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. It can cost victims hundreds of thousands of dollars to prove their innocence."

One such case involved a man named Michael Fiola, who was fired and charged with possession of child pornography in 2007 after files were found on his work-issued computer. He protested his innocence, and spent more than $250,000 fighting the charges, ultimately prevailing.

"An inspection for his defense revealed the laptop was severely infected," the AP reports. "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 an hour and a half." They say they've talked to dozens of lawyers but can't get one to sue the state, because of a cap on the amount they can recover.

"It ruined my life, my wife's life and my family's life," Viola said.

Perversely, others charged with crimes they did not commit are not as lucky as the Violas, and are stuck in prison, serving often long sentences under constant threat from other inmates who prey upon inmates they believe are child abusers, with the prospect of spending the rest of their lives on sex offender databases once they get out.

According to the AP, while many prosecutors are suspicious of claims of innocence, saying those charged are using a "dog ate my homework" defense, the actual threat to computers worldwide continues to grow.

"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," it reports.