When I first traveled through Switzerland some 16 years ago, I went to France for the day, leaving from Geneva. On entering France, the guards saw a long, curly haired, American in a rental car, and they assumed I would be carrying drugs, so they took apart the car. I didn’t mind it until it occurred to me that perhaps the last guy who rented might have left something behind. Fortunately, none of that happened.
Last year, I attended one of my favorite conferences, the Workshop on the Economics of Information Security (WEIS08). I met there a number of good folk from the law enforcement community, and some talked about some of their successful investigations into crime on the computer. In one case, the investigators found megabytes of illicit material on someone’s hard drive. An astute and bright man from Microsoft by the name of Stuart Schechter pointedly asked the question how the investigators knew that the owner of the PC had stored the illicit material. The implication here would be that bad guys could be using the computer without the knowledge of its owner. The detective answered that such evidence is only one component used to charge and/or convict someone.
Now comes a case reported by AP in neighboring Massachusetts where this scenario has been brought to the fore. Michael Fiola, an employee of the state government, was fired, arrested, and shunned because some criminal broke into his computer.
What are the lessons to be learned? There is this common notion by many that end users aren’t generally the victims of the people who break into their computers. Not so in this case. There is also a belief that faith in government prosecutors alone will get an innocent person out of trouble. Not so in this case. They did eventually drop the charges, but only at the cost of his entire savings, large amounts of stress, etc.
This is not the only such case in which this has happened. So, do you know what’s on your computer? Are you sure?