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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.

There are other reasons for child-porn distributors and consumers to look over their shoulders. Last spring, federal and state law-enforcement agencies announced a crackdown on the use of peer-to-peer file-sharing networks for child pornography that, at the time, had already resulted in hundreds of searches and dozens of arrests.

Despite such signs of progress, Aftab isn't alone in worrying it's not enough. "The problem is that as law enforcement increases the number of cases, it's increasing in a linear fashion, whereas the problem is exploding in an exponential way," says Robert Flores, administrator of the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

There's also growing concern that the public is becoming desensitized to the issue of child pornography, as evidenced by incidents involving teenagers who create and share sexually explicit images of themselves or other teens that fit the definition of child pornography. "Kids are producing child porn and selling it," Aftab says. "It's crossed the line from the most contraband and heinous of all content to something everyone has seen or think they've seen."


WiredPatrol.org child pornography awareness poster -- ''Child Pornography ... Behind every picture there's pain. -- small version

(click image for larger view)

Wired Kids put out this public-service advertisement.
What can be done? Aftab and others say an increased emphasis on education and awareness is the next step. Wired Kids plans to merge its operations with Safeguarding Our Children--United Mothers (www.soc-um.org), a nonprofit organization also dedicated to child safety, and the combined group will focus on child-protection and cybersafety awareness and education.

The Justice Department plans to step up its messaging, too. "We want to start to educate kids about the danger of that whole industry, that it's not a benign thing," Flores says. "Once you get sucked in, all sorts of things can happen." Among the associated risks are online enticement, sexual molestation, and child prostitution.

Industry groups representing peer-to-peer companies, under pressure to curb the use of their products for child pornography, have joined the fight. "We can and are playing a role in the education process and even in facilitating law enforcement," says Adam Eisgrau, executive director of Peer-to-Peer United.

Private-sector companies are getting more proactive. One of the reasons the number of reports to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's hot line has jumped is that Internet service providers, in compliance with federal law, are reporting suspicious activity in greater numbers. And Immigration agent Cantor credits Visa and MasterCard with helping in the Falcon case. "The unfortunate reality of this business is they're very persistent," says a spokeswoman for Visa International, which uses a brand-protection service from NameProtect Inc. to identify Web sites that accept Visa cards as payment for child pornography and then reports those sites to law-enforcement agencies. "The site will shut down in one place then reopen in another. The problem doesn't go away."

Most companies monitor employee use of the Internet, some more strictly than others. At ATF Inc. "objectionable sites and/or material accessed from the work environment are cause for disciplinary action up to and including dismissal," says Gerald Spering, director of IT at the automotive-parts maker, in an E-mail. ATF uses Internet-monitoring tools "to try to protect employees from exposure to" such content, Spering says, but he points out that it's more difficult to control what mobile workers such as salespeople access from the road with portable PCs.

Technology plays an increasingly important role in criminal investigations. Microsoft has been working with law enforcement in Canada for more than a year to build a database to be used for child-porn investigative work. The soon-to-launch Child Exploitation Tracking System will make it possible for Canadian police to share case information in real time and map out relationships between people, connecting the dots among the shady characters who distribute and access child porn.

But it's on Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., campus where some of the most interesting and potentially controversial work is under way. Developers there are considering ways to build into the Windows environment functionality that resists child pornography. "We are working internally to create products which are not going to be susceptible to that kind of misuse," says Rich LaMagna, director of worldwide digital integrity investigations and law-enforcement outreach for Microsoft.

THE UPSHOT
Reports of child pornography continue to increase



The proliferation of child porn is partly due to the proliferation of technology such as encryption, key-chain storage, and peer-to-peer networks



IT should be concerned: At least four states require IT technicians to report suspected child porn



Vendors such as Microsoft are working on ways to block child porn



It's unclear how far along Microsoft has gotten, but Hemanshu Nigam, a Microsoft lawyer whose background includes investigating child pornography at the Justice Department, has begun working directly with the Windows development group. Microsoft researchers also are exploring ways to determine whether a suspected child-porn image is authentic or a doctored-up digital composite.

Innovative uses of technology can make a difference. On Feb. 3, Toronto police released digital photos found on the Internet in hopes that the public might provide information on their origin. The image of the victim, a young girl, had been digitally erased from the pictures so that only the backgrounds could be seen. Police were hoping that someone might recognize the locations where the photos were taken, even though they were a couple of years old. Within hours, police got the lead they were hoping for when they learned that the pictures were taken at Walt Disney World in Florida, providing an extremely important clue in the case.

It's small victories like this that give child-protection advocates hope, despite the ever-expanding scope of this terrible trend. "We want to attack it at all levels, the supply and the demand," Immigration agent Cantor says. The mother of three adds, "I take it very personally."

-- with Marianne Kolbasuk McGee

Illustration by Anastasia Vasilakis

Continue to the sidebar:
Picture This: Should Google Filter Its Image Database?

Continue to the column:
The Privacy Lawyer: The Pain Behind The Pictures

Continue to the blog:
Teaming Up Against Child Porn

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Responses To Our Story "Technology And The Fight Against Child Porn"

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