Is Clicking a Crime?

The FBI is taking the "To Catch a Predator" model of crime-fighting to a highly theoretical realm by seeding message boards with fake links to kiddie porn and arresting the people who click on them.

The sting works like this, according to CNet's Declan McCullagh: Agents post to kiddie porn message boards with links to files hosted on an FBI server. The posts indicate that the files are images or movies of minors engaged in sexual activity. When someone clicks on the links, they get an encrypted file full of gibberish. The FBI logs their IP address, subpoenas their service provider to ascertain their identity, raids their home, and arrests them for attempting to download illegal porn.

The technique has been used in Pennsylvania, New York, and Nevada, McCullagh reports, and it worked in the case of Roderick Vosburgh, a Temple University PhD student who was convicted in November for clicking on a dummy link.

There are a host of problems with the stings: One defendant has argued that dozens of his neighbors had access to his wireless network, and could have clicked on the link under his IP address. And of course, it loses its investigative value against anyone savvy enough to use Tor or some other anonymizing service.

But technical complications aside, can clicking on a link really be a crime? Efforts to combat child pornography and sexual abuse have become less and less grounded in the real world in recent decades, as prosecutors have attempted to jail people for viewing fake kiddie porn in which no real children were harmed and for attempting to meet with minors who don't exist.

It's undoubtedly a good thing if pervs everywhere stop clicking on links that purport to show kiddie porn for fear of FBI agents descending on their homes a day or two later. But a mouseclick is an awfully slight action on which to hang a three-year sentence, which Vosburgh is facing.

And clicking doesn't even have to be a crime: Judges have ruled in the porn honeypot cases that the clicks also constitute probable cause for a search warrant, which is even more troubling and applicable outside the realm of kiddie porn. Can the Feds set up a fake web site where you can buy, say, drug paraphernalia? And get a warrant to search your house because you clicked "Buy Here"? We hope not!

[Via Cryptome]