The Globe & Mail — Technology
November 1999 — 2080 words
“Do you want to see some pictures? Some fun and naughty ones?”. Before Patty73 could reply, another line appeared; “Erin19 is a 19/f looking for some cute young girls to trade self-nudes and more…Msg Me”. Then another ” GOTO http://pornsex011alpha.com for 100% free porn, no age check”
Line after line of cryptic text similar to what you’d find in the personal section of a tawdry tabloid appeared on Patty73’s screen. Scrolling upward on the monitor, multi-line advertisements for porn Websites, FTP servers, and Fservs were constantly appearing, and being replaced by yet another appeal; “The first 100% FREE PORN SITE with never before seen Pamela Anderson pics!…Sex stories, Live video stream, 100% free!…All you would ever need to get off!!…NO credit card checks and/or age verifications…”
In a quiet room in downtown Edmonton, Patty73 stares at the console; face bathed in the soft glow from the screen and not really surprised by the passionate messages from people who specialize in collecting and distributing child pornography.
That’s because Patty73 is a cop. Every day, someone like Detective Dave Johnston goes to work on the Internet, a far cry from the naÃƒÂ¯ve petite young girl he deftly creates while on the prowl.
Like the people he’s pursuing, Det. Johnston is also very passionate about child pornography. In this case, the Edmonton Police Detective’s passion is directed towards collecting and prosecuting pedophiles-stalkers that make the Internet an unsafe place for children. “It is a trend right now,” he says. “Child Pornography used to be difficult to get your hands on.“Now the challenge for Det. Johnston and his partner, Detective George Sidor, is to gather evidence and charge criminals using the Internet to prey on children. “There are pedophile-stalkers stalking kids here in Edmonton,” Det. Johnston cautioned when describing this global problem.
Utilizing online undercover techniques, a ‘virtual stakeout’ is usually set up in one of the hundreds of child pornography chat rooms littering the Internet. These are the popular hangouts for the kind of people who trade in these illegal images. These are also the places where unsuspecting children can quickly get into trouble.
Det. Sidor explains one successful technique used to attract stalker-pedophiles. “You make them believe you’re probably 13–14, trying to act 18. Depending what you’re looking for, stalkers or pedophiles, you’d go as a little girl or little boy.” The detectives begin to act out an online role that usually involves many evenings of work, gaining the confidence of their suspect.
Det. Johnston was involved in one online conversation with a person who had a taste for the bizarre. “He wanted to have sex with kids. And dogs. And kids and dogs. Males and femalesÂ¦he wasn’t fussy shall we say,” he explains. “You just talk to him for 10 minutes and your skin just crawls. A really odd, odd individual.”
“It was uncomfortable, you have to get inside their head,” Det. Johnston adds. The suspect was later arrested, and pled guilty to possession of child pornography.
Online conversations between pedophiles often include the swapping of child pornography. In fact, there is a whole culture with technology designed to support these transactions.
Using programs such as ICQ, HotLine, NetMeeting and mIRC, pedophiles routinely scour each other’s publicly accessible computer systems, looking for rare and previously unseen images of adults having sex with children.
Occasionally an individual will take matters into their own hands and create new images to feed this insatiable appetite.
They haunt the same IRC Channels that children often visit, gathering information and masquerading as kids themselves, hunting for a target.
Then some evening, by logging into the wrong IRC channel and chatting with an online ‘friend’, a child could begin a process that may end in kidnapping and rape.
“These people will abduct a child and have live sex on the Internet” Det. Johnston said. “It’s like a call-in show; what do you want me to do next”.
“There’s nothing so disgusting you can think of that there aren’t ten thousand people on the Internet taking a real charge out of it.” Det. Sidor is adamant though, “We do not send, under any circumstances, child pornography to anybody”.
Occasionally, the duty takes it’s toll, as both detectives have children. “You go through 15 thousand of those images, it’s wearing, and there’s no doubt about it,” Det. Johnston admits. “We have an open door policy with our psychologist that’s on staff here. They make time for you when you’re feeling a little depressed.” “It’s sometimes difficult”, Det. Sidor adds, “especially if it’s an investigation that has involved us to go undercover for a while.”
Those same undercover operations can return the biggest successes. “We had one where the week before we arrested this individual he’d actually made a trip out of town with the specific purpose of having sex with a kid,” Det. Johnston says. “It fell through because the person who was going to supply the child never showed up.” “This was an active pedophile stalker just about ready to go actively looking for kids. And it was very good to get him off the street.”
According to the detectives, pedophile stalkers are mobile and will happily send money or travel tickets to their targets. A recent example south of the border is the high-profile arrest of a Disney/InfoSeek executive.
Over a seven-month period, the FBI gathered evidence in online chat rooms and through e-mail correspondences with the accused.
They made the arrest September 16th, when the accused allegedly crossed states lines to meet and have sex with a teenage girl, who was an undercover agent.
Then there’s the case was the wake-up call for the Edmonton Police Service. Back in August of 1996, a civilian employee of the Service was charged with child pornography related crimes.
The trial resulted in a successful prosecution and guilty verdict. The accused was sentenced to 60 days in prison, and the case set a precedent. “We had the first [online child pornography] case ever in Canada to go to court,” Det. Johnston says.
Ironically, since that victory, it’s been an uphill battle. Computer programs that allow the transmission of images are much easier to use. Online encryption adds another layer of complexity to the task of tracking pedophiles. And there are more people online now than ever before.
“It is a trend right now,” Det. Johnston explains. “Madam Justice Smith, in one of the rulings in her cases ruled that actually child pornography in electronic form is more insidious. It’s easier to hide, easier to share, and easier to distribute.” He adds, “It’s not victimless crime, even if its just pictures being taken, you have to keep in mind those pictures will be on the Internet for 200 years, so the evidence of the crime is always there.”
Though it seems as if this problem has no solution, police forces are joining forces at all levels to combat the growing problem.
Municipal, provincial, national, and international agencies are all sharing their skill and knowledge to gain successful prosecutions in their respective jurisdiction. Det’s. Johnston and Sidor both teach courses related to online child pornography at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa.
Still, it’s a drop in the bucket. Across Canada, there are at most a hundred officers actively involved in online child pornography investigations. Many of these same officers also investigate other crimes where a computer may be part of the evidence, such as fraud, counterfeiting, and hacking.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest battles faced by the officers on the front lines often comes from their own administrative structure. Members from various police departments have expressed frustration at the lack of vision and support.
This can be partially attributed to the fact that computer technology changes at an incredible rate, and some departments are unwilling to continually fund budgets for the latest training, or the latest hardware and software upgrades.
In some cases, computer crime investigators are managing by upgrading their hardware with forfeited computer equipment seized from successfully prosecuted criminal cases. Occasionally the investigators pay for their own training, learning what they can on their own.
This means that some of the investigators can be two to three generations behind the criminals, with their techniques, tactics, and technology. This is important when any computer system is seized.
As part of the evidence gathering process, investigators routinely copy the hard drive, byte-by-byte, making an exact data duplicate, protecting the integrity of the original. This duplicate is what they use to extract evidence necessary to make the case.
When the seized system has a new twenty-seven Gigabyte hard drive, the investigators would have to buy one as well, or copy the data to many smaller drives, a time consuming process.
One police service we talked to had a backlog of 30 cases, with three or more hard drives to examine for each case.
On the other hand, some police departments, including Edmonton, Halifax, and the RCMP national tech crime unit have been quite supportive by ensuring the officers get the best resources and training they need.
It’s that training that often enables a prosecutor to win the case. “What Dave and I have to do is be that liaison between the Geeks and the Non-Geeks,” said Det. Sidor. “We made up a list of some of the more common jargon, and handed it out to the defense, the Judge and prosecution. I did it as a lark in one of the trials and it’s our standard now,” adds Det. Johnston.
Prosecuting these crimes can be an expensive undertaking. Last year, Det’s. Johnston and Sidor logged over 150 technology related complaints. That doesn’t seem like a lot, until you realize that these two officers are responsible for each investigation, and that technology related investigations often take months to conclude.
Keeping careful notes of everything done at the scene is very important, says Det. Johnston. “Describing the computer, looking through the computer, checking for unusual configurations…” is all part of the daily routine.
And some days are far from routine. “We’ve also done computer seizures where you’re looking for extra wires coming out of the computer as well,” notes Det. Johnston. The bombs the bad guys can place aren’t necessarily data destroying logic-bombs, they could be real and physically dangerous. “It’s a big difference between seizing the computer at a 14 year old kids house, and maybe seizing a computer at a biker’s location.”
Not all of the Detective’s work is performed in a reactive role though. In the Edmonton Police Service, community policing begins with community involvement.
In this case, that means taking a proactive approach, talking with teachers, young children, teens, and parents about the dangers lurking on the Internet and how best to combat them. Ironically, often the best Internet safety resources are found on the Internet itself.
“We tell schools that if they’re going to have a web page up, don’t put any children’s pictures on Web pages,” Det. Johnston says, “that’s just a lead.” Det. Sidor adds, “All it takes is a person to look up a young girl [on the school website], and he’s got a face and a name and the stalking can start. It’s dangerous…very dangerous.”
At their presentations, the detectives also mention that the responsibility for keeping young computer users safe resides in the home. They feel that if more parents were involved in their children’s online activities, both parents and children would have a better understanding of the risks involved.
Most audiences appear to appreciate the dangers; more so after they’ve seen some of the images the detectives bring to the presentations.
“We’ve got one image that we show as part of our presentation” Det. Johnston says. “It’s a really scary image, the child is fully clothed. It’s just the child sitting at a table looking up at somebody taking pictures, you know what has happened in the past, just a look of terror and lost soul in the eyes, it’s really hard to look at the image.” He adds, “by the time we get to our last slide, even the grade 11, grade 12, cool individual is paying attention.”
Some would think using such shock tactics a bit unfair, but since the two detectives consider this their most important role, it may be justified. Det. Sidor sums up their work in the virtual world with its potential impact on the real world. “If we prevent one kid from being abducted I think we’ve done our job.”