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Hacking Away at Privacy Rights

What’s more troubling to society: someone accused of stashing kiddie porn on a home computer or someone who secretly hacks into that person’s computer, infiltrates their private life and turns the findings over to authorities?

For some of you, it’s a no-brainer: String up the former and wrist-slap the latter. It’s not that easy for me. First of all, this is no theoretical conundrum.

We have real-life players to offer. Facing federal charges for possession of child pornography is Ronald Kline, a former Orange County Superior Court judge.

He’s in the dock because a young computer whiz from Canada named Bradley Willman designed a program to entice child pornography devotees and to then gain access to their home files.

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Kline has pleaded not guilty, but police say he has never denied having the materials.

Now, however, the case against him hangs on a legal technicality -- namely, whether police obtained access to his files legally or violated his right to privacy.

That ruling is pending. Meanwhile, Willman keeps track of the case from afar but, with what strikes me as surprising candor, says he has some misgivings about how things have played out.

“It’s just kind of a little bit awkward,” he says to me by phone from British Columbia. “A lot of people would say I’m the best person in the world, and others would say I should be going to jail myself. I understand both viewpoints. I took a lot into account before going public.”

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That’s a relief. It’s nice to know that Willman, 23, understands the queasiness some of us might feel in knowing that an anonymous cyber-detective can be in our homes when we don’t know it.

Willman says he sent Kline’s computer diaries to a group that monitors pedophile activity. That group passed them to a similar organization, which then forwarded them to Irvine police.

“My whole intent, after the program started working as I expected it to, was to help kids,” Willman says. “I had a pretty good motive for it, but some would definitely argue I didn’t have the right to do anything like that.”

I ask if he considers himself a good citizen. As he does with almost everything I ask, he answers in a soft-spoken and almost hesitant tone. “Well, I don’t normally label myself like that, but I guess if I had to, yeah, I guess I would be a bit of a good citizen.”

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Don’t look to me to pin a medal on Willman.

I’m not arguing one way or another whether Kline should go free. I just recoil at someone invading another’s home, whether with a gun or a computer. Willman begs to differ.

“The Internet is not a private place,” he says. “It’s a public place where thousands go; so if you’re going to a site and downloading something, you’ve got to be aware of the risk that it’s not going to be private.”

Willman’s information also led to a separate charge being filed against Kline for allegedly molesting a 14-year-old boy more than two decades ago. After the charges were filed, the judge didn’t run for reelection last year and remains under house arrest.

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Kline’s attorney has alleged in court documents that Willman himself is a pedophile. “That’s not something I feel like commenting about,” Willman says.

A final question, then. What’s it like to cook up a program that gives you the almost-omniscient power to read another person’s innermost secrets and thoughts?

“I really couldn’t even describe it,” Willman says. “It’s really weird to be able to see people’s private thoughts. I can’t say it’s a good feeling or a bad feeling. It’s just really weird.”

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821, at dana.parsons@latimes.com or at The Times’ Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.


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