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Intelligent Machines

Police would turn to computer technicians to nab child abusers, under proposed laws

NEW BRITAIN, Conn. (AP) – Computer technicians would be obligated to report child abuse just like doctors, teachers and others who work closely with children, under measures being considered by lawmakers in two states.

At least five states – Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina and South Dakota – require computer technicians to report child pornography. Connecticut and California are considering legislation that would go a step farther, adding technicians to the list of ”mandated reporters” who notify authorities about any type of child abuse and neglect.

”Computer usage is a very real part of our culture and daily activities,” said New Britain Police Sgt. James P. Wardell. ”Laws must change and evolve to reflect this ever-changing technological advancement.”

Wardell, a certified forensic computer examiner, said alerts from computer technicians can help stop some abuse cases faster. In New Britain, one such alert led to a police investigation that uncovered photos and videotapes of young children being drugged and raped, he said. The suspect was ultimately arrested and convicted of multiple offenses.

”In this case, the abuse and exploitation was stopped, but if no report had been made regarding the first image, then perhaps the abuse would have continued or even gotten worse,” Wardell said.

The Connecticut legislation defines a computer technician as ”any person who services or repairs personal computers.” It was awaiting action in the state House.

State Rep. Tim O’Brien said his bill backs up technicians who decide to come forward with something suspicious they’ve found on a computer. They don’t have to worry about whether they should file a report.

”The computer repairman can say, ‘Look, here’s what I saw, I felt it was my obligation under the law to report it,”’ he said.

Technicians want to be helpful to police, but they are concerned about potential liability if they overlook or fail to report abuse, said Michael Wendy, spokesman for the Computing Technology Industry Association based in Illinois.

”I’m not sure what evidence of child neglect or abuse might be on a computer, but it would most certainly be different, more ambiguous, than what could be experienced directly by a doctor, teacher or daycare worker,” Wendy said.

Thirty-seven professions in Connecticut are required to report child abuse, including teachers, medical personnel and counselors. People in those professions who report abuse in good faith are immune from civil and criminal liabilities. Failure to notify the state Department of Children and Families could lead to fines up to $500.

In California, mandated reporters face a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine if they fail to alert authorities of suspected abuse.

A similar bill adding computer technicians to that list of mandated reporters died last year in California. This year’s bill was still being considered in a committee.

TJ Benoit, owner of TAB Computer Systems, Inc., in East Hartford, Conn., said he welcomes the legislation, although he said the 10 technicians who work for him have never found child pornography on a computer.

”I think it’s a good idea,” he said. ”I think it compels us to participate (in stopping) what I consider abhorrent

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