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2/11/2005
01:35 PM
John Foley
John Foley
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Technology And The Fight Against Child Porn

Online child pornography is a growing problem that the I.T. industry can't ignore.

For years, carefully trained volunteers with Wired Kids Inc., a nonprofit organization devoted to online consumer safety, scoured the Web in search of child pornography. They frequently found the illicit images and videos, and passed tips to law-enforcement personnel about the Web sites and chat rooms where they're exchanged. All too often, however, nothing happened. Frustrated that the group's efforts were wasted, Wired Kids' executive director and founder, Parry Aftab, has decided to pull back from the gumshoe work of proactively seeking child pornography and concentrate instead on public education and awareness. "The magnitude of the problem is so big that law enforcement can no longer even put a dent in it," Aftab says. "I'm tired of having people work and nothing happen."

The statistics bear out Aftab's concern. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's CyberTipline logged a 39% increase in reports of possession, creation, or distribution of child pornography in 2004, the seventh consecutive year child-pornography incidents have trended upward since the federally funded group set up its 24-hour hot line in 1998. "The problem is getting bigger," says Staca Urie, a supervisor with the center.

Ironically, the proliferation of child pornography is fueled by the same trend that's enriching the lives of children around the world: advances in computer technology and the global reach of the Web. In the same way that spam is an unwanted side effect of online correspondence, the widespread distribution of child pornography is an ugly by-product of digital technology. Encryption, key-chain storage devices, peer-to-peer networks, and Internet relay chat are used by child pornographers and pedophiles to correspond and share their illegal content with stomach-turning efficiency.

That makes child pornography a problem the technology industry can't ignore--and it isn't. Microsoft, for instance, is investigating whether Windows can be designed to resist storing child pornography. Computer Associates, Sun Microsystems, and other vendors contribute resources to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. And America Online and Yahoo both put "a tremendous amount of time and expertise into solving this problem," says Aftab, who also writes a column for InformationWeek (see "The Privacy Lawyer: The Pain Behind The Pictures").

What's more, as the problem grows, so do the chances that IT departments will have to deal with it. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, which provides research to state policy-makers, at least four states--Arkansas, Missouri, South Carolina, and South Dakota--have enacted laws that require IT technicians to report suspected child pornography if they encounter it in the course of their work, and Oklahoma has drafted a similar bill. "There are a lot of corporations that learn about this stuff" by finding it on company computers, Aftab says. Products like Secure Computing Corp.'s SmartFilter let system administrators investigate, by content category, the Web pages visited by employees, with child pornography in the "extreme" category.

Law-enforcement agencies around the world are trying hard to track down the perpetrators. The Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, state-level Internet Crimes Against Children task forces, and officials in other countries collaborate on child-pornography investigations. Interpol and the International Center For Missing And Exploited Children, with $1 million in funding from Microsoft and philanthropist Sheila Johnson, are hosting a series of seminars in Europe, Asia, and Africa to train police in what to do.

Using PCs and Google, investigators easily found child porn, Immigration supervisory special agent Susan Cantor says. -- Photo by Ben Baker/Redux

Using PCs and Google, investigators easily found child porn, Susan Cantor says.

Photo by Ben Baker/Redux
One of the most successful crackdowns to date, known as the Falcon case, has resulted in more than 1,000 arrests in 13 countries, and the two-year pursuit isn't over. It was launched in February 2003, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, using nothing more than PCs and Google Inc.'s search engine, quickly found their way to Web sites that charged from $49.95 to $79.95 per month for access to databases full of child pornography. "It's really, really easy," Immigration supervisory special agent Susan Cantor says. "We were immediately brought to those sites."

Rather than target just the Web-site operators, investigators decided to go after the Internet billing company that kept them in business, Regpay Co. Ltd., in Minsk, Belarus, and Connections USA Inc., a credit-card processor in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. After being extradited from other countries in Europe, where they were lured by investigators, three Regpay officials now sit in New Jersey jails facing charges of online child pornography and money laundering. Their trial in U.S. federal court is scheduled to begin next month. The president of Connections USA will be tried there, too.

The Falcon case illustrates the international nature of the child-porn infrastructure. The IP addresses of the child-porn sites led investigators to servers operated by Rackspace Managed Hosting, based in San Antonio, Texas. Regpay was a Rackspace customer; Rackspace itself has not been implicated. Using search warrants, investigators obtained copies of the hard drives on those servers, and they hit the jackpot: The electronic records of 100,000 transactions conducted in the first six months of 2003, including credit-card information and other data that could be traced back to individual subscribers. "That's where we turned over the leaves," Cantor says.

In tracking down individual consumers of the child pornography, Falcon investigators put a priority on going after those who are in frequent contact with children, including a grade-school teacher, a pediatrician, a minister at an all-girls school, and a camp counselor. The latest suspect: a high-school social-studies teacher in Buffalo, N.Y., arrested Feb. 3 and alleged to have stored more than 400 child-porn images on his home computer.

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