Never Trust a Cop

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has a valuable lesson for us: never trust a cop. OK, I’m putting words into the EFF’s mouth. But after it uncovered something nasty in a software package being given out to parents by police departments under the auspices of protecting the children I think my sentiment is fair:

Police chiefs, sheriffs, and district attorneys have handed out hundreds of thousands of copies of the disc to families for free at schools, libraries, and community events, usually as a part of an “Internet Safety” outreach initiative. The packaging typically features the agency’s official seal and the chief’s portrait, with a signed message warning of the “dark and dangerous off-ramps” of the Internet.

As official as it looks, ComputerCOP is actually just spyware, generally bought in bulk from a New York company that appears to do nothing but market this software to local government agencies.

The way ComputerCOP works is neither safe nor secure. It isn’t particularly effective either, except for generating positive PR for the law enforcement agencies distributing it. As security software goes, we observed a product with a keystroke-capturing function, also called a “keylogger,” that could place a family’s personal information at extreme risk by transmitting what a user types over the Internet to third-party servers without encryption. That means many versions of ComputerCOP leave children (and their parents, guests, friends, and anyone using the affected computer) exposed to the same predators, identity thieves, and bullies that police claim the software protects against.

That’s right at least 245 agencies spanning 35 states have been giving parents a malware package under the guise of Internet safety software. Parents who were suckered into installing it got to enjoy a keylogger sending everything typed on the computer across the Internet. Adding insult to injury the transmitted keystrokes weren’t even encrypted. I’m sure the National Security Agency (NSA) has an erection because of this.

It’s unlikely that every police departments that was peddling this software is directly at fault here. They were probably naive and got suckered in by the company that, as the article points out, used fraudulent endorsements to encourage police departments to buy its software. But the bottom line is still that the departments were distributing malware, which demonstrates that they don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to software and therefore shouldn’t be trusted with such matters.

I said that not every police department is directly to blame. There is one department headed by a real asshole that is directly to blame. That department is the Limestone County Sheriff’s Department. After this news broke the Limestone County sheriff, Mike Blakely, decided that the EFF’s claims were incorrect. In fact he had some pretty harsh words for the EFF:

Sheriff Blakely said, Computer Cop is spyware designed for parents to watch and protect their kids but said the system has been vetted.

“We have had the key logger checked out with our IT people. They have run it on our computer system.” He said. “There is no malware.”

Blakely referred to the EFF criticism politics as an “Ultra-liberal organization that is not in any way credible on this. They’re more interested in protecting predators and pedophiles than in protecting our children.”

You read correctly. According to Sheriff Blakely the fucking EFF, the organization that has a long and proud history of fighting for the rights of computer users, isn’t credible on this. Furthermore he claims that the organization is interested in protecting predators and pedophiles, which would be a laughable claim if it wasn’t obvious that Blakely is trying to poison the well.

If what he said is true, if his department did check out the software, then it is directly at fault for knowingly distributing malware to unsuspecting parents. Were I a parent that received a copy of ComputerCOP from the Limestone County Sheriff’s Department I would seriously consider filing a lawsuit.