The Hamilton Spectator
Thursday, November 27, 1997
page A2

Protect private files on computer like you would in a filing cabinet

by Adrian Humphreys

Yesterday's guilty verdict for a man with a computer packed with child pornography is more about common sense than high technology.

On the surface, the details of the case against Maurice Sheresky, 35, sound like a case of how emerging technology falls into grey legal areas.

But scratch deeper and it highlights how it's the way we think - and not the law - that needs changing.

People should think of computer storage devices like a filing cabinet full of private documents. Changing this attitude about electronic data may solve some of the cyber anxiety.

Sheresky took his computer to a business for service where a technician scanning for viruses found files containing photos of naked children.

A call to police ended with Sheresky being charged and convicted for possession of child pornography.

But would someone with a trunk full of illegal porn magazines take it to a locksmith to be opened and then be surprised to find police waiting when he went back to pick it up? Not likely.

"If the lock on your file cabinet broke in your home office, you wouldn't dream of letting a stranger rummage through your business papers", says David Jones, professor of computer science at McMaster University.

"We'd set and watch them do the job."

Jones is also co-founder of Electronic Frontier Canada, a group concerned about privacy and freedom of speech on the Internet.

"Today's computers are so compact and the storage capabilities so great ... we end up storing a lot of personal information on them - love letters, letters to lawyers, notes to family, our tax returns.

Is it really that different from paper? Words are words, after all.

Is an Internet service provider peeking at its customer's e-mail, looking for illegal activity, any different from Canada Post employees opening up mail? Does snooping through an employee's hard drive differ from rummaging through desk drawers? Is a telephone operator listening in on a phone conversation fundamentally different from intercepting e-mail?

Sure, the technology is different and the ease or difficulty of snooping is changing, but at heart are issues of common sense and reasonable expectation of privacy.

Just as we lock up an office, sensitive papers, and filing cabinets, we need to think twice about what we're doing with our computers.

"By letting someone use your computer, you have to realize you're giving them access to a great deal of private information", says Jones.

Imagine what the inventory of belongings typed up for the insurance company might do in the hands of a break-and-enter artists, or your income tax return being passed around the neighbourhood.

Copyright © 1997 by The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.