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Internet porn rumours tear reader's life apart

PC Advisor reveals terrible effect caused by false allegations of internet paedophilia

When kiddie porn rings are broken we all applaud the police for a job well done. But what happens when they bust the wrong person? Here our forum editor, Peter Thomas looks at how police incompetence tore apart the life of a disabled PC Advisor reader.

Regular PC Advisor reader William Jones lives in Crumlin, Northern Ireland, and is registered disabled. He took up computing to enhance his quality of life and has since succeeded in obtaining several diplomas.

Shortly before 8am on 20 August 2002 William and his wife (who is also disabled) were awoken by a loud banging on the door. It was officers from the Police Service for Northern Ireland's computer crime unit. They told William that they were acting on information received in an anonymous phone call, and that they had reason to believe he had been downloading child pornography.

William was deeply shocked, but readily offered up the drives on both his machines for inspection. To his surprise a Detective Constable confessed that he had "little or no computer knowledge", and the machines were confiscated for examination elsewhere. William stressed that he was completely innocent, and that at no time did he view or download pornography of any description.

The computers were duly bundled into the back of a police car along with the attendant floppy disks and CDs, leaving William dazed and angry. His enquiries about how long the examinations would take were met with silence.

The events that followed would be laughable if the implications weren't so serious. William's computers were retained by the police for 108 days — that's nearly three and a half months — during which time William had no information about what was happening or when they would be returned.

He rang the computer crime unit on numerous occasions and was given no help whatsoever. At the end of November an officer told him that the data recovery personnel had said they would examine the machines "whenever they got around to it".

By this time members of William's family and his small local community had begun to shun both him and his wife. In William's words: "So many fools believe there's no smoke without fire and I find myself trying to prove my innocence to people who should know better."

Desperate to bring the nightmare to an end, William contacted his local newspaper — the Belfast Telegraph. Within 24 hours the police rang to tell William that his computers were being examined. Two days later they rang to say that there was no trace of any pornography on either computer and that they would be returned "as soon as possible".

William placed another call to the Belfast Telegraph. Almost immediately the police rang back to say that the computers would be returned within 40 minutes. They duly arrived, but not a single word of apology was offered. On starting up his machines, William found that a DVD drive and USB ports on one machine no longer functioned. Unfortunately it's likely the warranties on his computers are now invalid owing to officers' clumsy investigations.

We think this sorry tale raises some serious issues. The police can and do make mistakes — they often have only the briefest anonymous call to go on. All the more reason, we say, to tread sensitively.

Even the mention of the word 'paedophile' has a powerful effect on the average person, and to live in a close-knit community with a constant suspicion hanging over your head is the worst kind of nightmare. And if William hadn't summoned the courage and initiative to enlist the help of the local press, he might still be waiting for his computers.

On 18 December 2002 the police finally wrote to William confirming that no suspect files had been found. Detective Inspector D McConville closed by saying, "I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your co-operation in this matter, and to wish you well for the future."

We say that's too little, too late, Inspector. Our reader deserves no less than a public apology — and he deserves it now. The Belfast Telegraph might be a good place to start with a published apology, followed by an appearance in the pages of ConsumerWatch. William is an innocent man, and he is entitled to lead his life without the fear of whispering innuendo and ostracism. Watch this space.


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