Free Computer Monitoring Program Might Carry Risks

A national nonprofit focusing on digital privacy rights has raised questions about computer software distributed to families by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

ComputerCOP, a program designed to monitor children’s Internet use, has claimed endorsements that are questionable at best, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Among them: the U.S. Treasury.

“This is all false accusations,” said Stephen DelGiorno, ComputerCOP president.

Marketing materials obtained by the EFF show ComputerCOP also claimed endorsements from the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

An ACLU spokesman told the Tampa Bay Times that the nonprofit never endorsed ComputerCOP. DelGiorno explained that in a 2004 newspaper article about the software, an ACLU spokesperson said the organization encouraged parents to monitor their children online.

A spokeswoman with the missing children center said the agency had an agreement with ComputerCOP in 1998, but it expired years ago.

The marketing materials also include a letter from the U.S. Treasury to a sheriff’s department granting permission to use forfeiture funds to buy ComputerCOP. A letter by DelGiorno stated that the product was “approved” by the Treasury, which has listed ComputerCOP on its fraud alert Web page.

DelGiorno said he contacted the Treasury to have the alert removed. He sent a Times reporter a copy of what he said were ComputerCOP’s current marketing materials, which did not include any of the endorsements. It was unclear when they were removed.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gual­tieri said the U.S. Treasury does not evaluate products purchased with forfeiture funds. “That’s misleading,” he said of ComputerCOP, “and they shouldn’t be doing that.”

According to the EFF, ComputerCOP has been sold to about 250 agencies nationwide in the past decade. Among them are several in Florida, including the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, which stopped distributing the program last year after encountering “virus-related issues,” a spokeswoman said.

Gualtieri said he based his decision to purchase ComputerCOP on referrals from other agencies and did not know at the time about the endorsements.

The EFF report, released in October, also claims that one of the software’s features can make it easier for hackers to access personal informa­tion.

“This is a major issue and we verified it many times over,” said Dave Maass, the EFF researcher who completed the report.

DelGiorno said the EFF’s claims are not true, but some agencies have notified parents about the potential privacy concerns.

The Pinellas Sheriff’s Office vetted the nonprofit’s report and agreed the hacking concerns had “some merit,” Gualtieri said.

After buying 5,000 copies for $26,500, the Sheriff’s Office began distributing the software for free last month with a letter explaining the possible risks.

Roughly 1,000 copies have been picked upm and the sheriff said he has received only positive feedback.

“We let people know in full disclosure what the potential issue was,” Gualtieri said.


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