Can you be arrested for what's on your computer?

Whether your aware of it or now, copyrighted or pornographic material on your work or personal computer can land you in jail or in the poor house.

Most of us probably don't spend a lot of time imagining the ways in which the contents of our computers can get us into trouble. But the hard fact is that, even if you aren't the kind of person to ignore the law, files on your computer could land you in jail. And this problem affects Unix/Linux systems as much as it does their Windows cousins. The top issue is, of course, child pornography -- whether you put it there or not. Over the past ten years, numerous people have been fired, arrested and/or prosecuted when child pornography was found on their personal or their work computers. Some were exonerated after the presence of an infection confirmed that the files were downloaded without their awareness, but not necessarily without extreme expense to themselves and without damaging their health, reputation and well being. In addition to worrying about what you might be intentionally or inadvertently downloading, you also need to be wary of what your system might be sharing. A personal system can be forced by an infection to visit porn sites and download files without the owner's awareness, but it can also be exploited and then used to share those images whenever it's online. The other big issue is copyrighted material. While you're unlikely to land in jail for storing copyrighted material on your system, you may well be sued by the copyright's owner for "damages" -- and those damages will far exceed the cost of the material even if you were to purchase copies for all of your friends and neighbors. Anytime you have copyrighted material on your computer without the permission of the copyright holder -- unless you are covered by fair use or some other copyright exemption -- you are running a risk. In addition, fair use is generally not as easy to gauge as you might imagine. And the problem isn't just you that can get into trouble with the law. Your company can get into trouble too. Companies can get into trouble if their employees' computers are found to house copyrighted materials. Even when employees just copy and paste copyrighted content into email sent to colleagues or post it on your intranet site, the company itself can end up involved in a lawsuit. One of the downsides of technological progress is, after all, that the ease with which copyrighted material can be accessed and downloaded belies the seriousness that the action entails. When someone can just right click on an image and download it, they might not stop to consider that they are violating the law. To offset the risk to themselves, many companies will include statements about its policies against copyright infringement in its employment agreements. The purpose of such agreements is primarily to protect the companies from the actions of its staff. If you, after signing such an agreement, proceed to download copyrighted material to your work computer, you will likely get yourself fired. Management may see some value in alerting you and other employees to the consequences of your actions, but the agreements are really for their protection, not yours. If the copyright holder wants to pursue the issue, the company wants it to be you, not them, that gets named in the suit. Most downloading of copyrighted material, as through file sharing (peer-to-peer) software and sites is illegal whether it involves movies, music or images. If you have copyrighted material along with a peer-to-peer file sharing application such as BitTorrent, you may be "facilitating the distribution of copyrighted material" -- another violation of copyright law, whether you intended to share the material or not. In recent years, the big copyright holders such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), have become considerably more aggressive about pursuing copyright infringers. As a system administrator, you should be alert to the possibility of copyright infringement whenever you review the contents of systems that you administer or manage. In supplements to this posting, we'll review some of the laws that pertain to how we use our computers and what we store on them and tools that might help you gain insights into the files on your systems.

Read more of Sandra Henry-Stocker's Unix as a Second Language blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld, Twitter and Facebook.

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