Sweetie looks much like other unfortunate young Filipinos. Just 10 years old, her user profile shows, she spends her days online fielding requests from men who offer her money to perform sexual acts in front of a webcam. When she logs on, invitations pour in – “Are you a working girl?” or “I’m into girls your age” – from strangers keen to get her into a private show via Skype or Yahoo! Messenger.
Unlike her peers, though, Sweetie is a computer-generated avatar created by a Dutch non-profit group seeking to unmask sexual predators on the internet.
Some 20 000 people contacted Sweetie during the eight weeks she was online last year, while researchers in an Amsterdam warehouse used keystrokes to turn her head, make her stare attentively or reach to adjust her webcam. After luring men in with the hyper-realistic animation, the group gathered e-mails, Facebook pages and head shots, then cut off contact before Sweetie engaged in sexual acts. It then gave Interpol dossiers on 1 000 suspects in scores of countries.
As the internet makes it easier than ever for people to find and distribute child pornography, companies and organisations are creating technological tools to fight it. Microsoft Corp has software that matches photos, even if they’ve been altered, so police can concentrate on new images surfacing online. Adobe Systems’ Photoshop helps identify victims with tools that sharpen pictures to unearth clues. Google blocks search terms related to child pornography. And Thorn, a foundation backed by Hollywood stars, has created a database for tracking known child sex abuse images and taking them offline.
“There’s limitless potential for technology to help solve the problem” of child pornography, said Mick Moran, head of Interpol’s Crimes Against Children unit in France.
Paedophiles today find each other on internet forums, peer-to-peer networks, and hidden websites. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that some 750 000 predators are online at any given moment. Victims, often found in chatrooms and on social networks, are becoming younger and the abuse more violent.
Among the most worrying trends is webcam misuse. As internet access spreads in countries like the Philippines, Thailand and Sri Lanka, children as young as infants are molested and raped on demand by family members and criminal groups for customers on the other side of the lens. Police in the Philippines say thousands of children have been victimised in this way.
In a rare crackdown on such abuse, authorities in the UK, US and Australia in January arrested 29 adults and identified 15 Filipino children in a case that began when recordings were found on the computer of a registered sex offender in England.
“It’s a new cottage industry,” said Hans Guyt, head of special projects at Terre des Hommes, the children’s rights group that created the Sweetie avatar with a local animation company that prefers to remain anonymous. “It’s fuelled by poverty at home and predators around the world with $100 (R1 054) to spare to watch a child get raped,” Guyt said in a cafe a few blocks from Amsterdam’s notorious red light district.
Since 2002, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Virginia, which analyses photos flagged as potentially abusive, has reviewed 105 million child sex abuse images – including 24 million last year, said Michelle Collins, head of the exploited children’s division. Tech companies must acknowledge their services can create havens for sex predators and they should take responsibility for helping control the problem, she said.
“Technology and industry and law enforcement are all important in this fight,” said Collins, who has worked at the group since 1998. “This isn’t a problem that’s going to be solved by arresting people.”
Among the tools used by the centre is PhotoDNA, the Microsoft software that can identify versions of the same picture online by comparing so-called digital fingerprints, an analysis of various elements of an image that add up to a unique signature that doesn’t change even if the photo is edited.
The program compares this fingerprint to a database of known child porn images to determine if it’s new or has already been in circulation.
Microsoft donates PhotoDNA to law enforcement agencies and Collins’ organisation. And the software giant uses it in-house to scan images stored on its SkyDrive service. When a photo is flagged, Microsoft locks the account and alerts police.
“Technology got us into trouble and this suggests technology can help get us out,” said Hany Farid, a professor of computer science at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire who developed PhotoDNA with Microsoft. Farid says he can recall only one instance in which an image was misidentified as child pornography.
One of the biggest challenges is TOR, or The Onion Router, a network created by the US Naval Research Lab a decade ago to provide anonymous communications to people in countries with authoritarian governments.
Though TOR is still funded by the US government, it harbours hundreds of illegal sites where you can hire a hitman, buy drugs, trade arms, or find child pornography.
It’s almost impossible to track users because traffic on the network is routed through a system of 5 000 relays across the globe to mask identities.
TOR executive director Andrew Lewman says he’s been directly approached by paedophiles seeking advice on using the network. “Some are shockingly bold at what they tell you, and they think they are operating with impunity,” said Lewman, 43. “They are surprised we don’t help them,” he said.
Despite the difficulties of locating paedophiles on TOR, there have been some recent successes.
On March 18, US police announced the arrest of 14 men who operated a TOR porn site that had victimised more than 250 children. Posing as women, the men had courted young boys on social media sites to get them to expose themselves and abuse younger siblings and even animals.
Since last August, Eric Eoin Marques has been in an Irish jail after his arrest on a US warrant for conspiring to distribute child porn. The FBI in July infiltrated his TOR site, which the agency calls the world’s biggest purveyor of such material.
Danish police in September 2012 uncovered child abuse images on TOR that, based on a few visual clues, they believed had come from the US.
The Danes turned them over to Jim Cole, head of victim identification in the Cyber Crimes Center at the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Virginia.
A 20-year veteran of criminal investigations who has worked with the US Army and the Department of Homeland Security, Cole was on an FBI-led task force and his speciality is tracking abusers using even the scantiest information.
“The internet has emboldened people who earlier couldn’t knock on a neighbour’s door and say ‘Hey, I like child abuse material’,” said Cole. “We know where they are posting and where they congregate and we get involved when there is no IP address or e-mail. We show up when more traditional investigative methods don’t work.”
Among the images the Danes discovered was one of a toddler being abused on a bathroom counter. Using Photoshop to sharpen a blurry prescription bottle in the background, Cole found a name and the logo of the CVS Pharmacy chain. Another photo of a car interior was sent to contacts in Detroit who determined it was a 1998 Suzuki Samurai. A picture with a close-up of the suspect’s hand yielded a fingerprint.
The clues led Cole and his team to the suspect’s profile on Facebook, where they could identify victims from the man’s contacts. Police eventually located 15 children abused by Stephen A Keating of Georgia. Last summer, Keating was sentenced to 110 years and ordered to pay $1.2 million in restitution to his victims.
Those PhotoShop methods have been honed by an Adobe engineer named John Penn II. One of the original creators of Photoshop, Penn says a Silicon Valley conference on internet crimes against children a decade ago spurred him to explore how his company’s technology could aid police. He began assisting authorities on cases in his own time, then in 2008 Adobe made it his full-time job.
“Agencies call me 24 hours a day,” said Penn, who advises police on using Adobe software in investigations. “You don’t get the chance to have this kind of impact that often.”
Thorn, a Los Angeles foundation set up five years ago by actors Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, is working with tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter to combat child porn.
One initiative examines the increasing availability of such material on peer-to-peer networks. A 2009 study revealed almost 22 million public internet addresses sharing child porn, including 10 million in the US, according to Julie Cordua, Thorn’s executive director. Unlike the shadowy TOR sites, on peer-to-peer networks users practically advertise what’s on their hard drive and share files with others.
“The problem with peer-to-peer is it’s the Wild West, and even though everything is visible and trackable you’ve just got so much volume,” Cordua said. She says that shining a spotlight on such networks may spur police to crack down on the people who operate them.
NetClean, a Swedish company that owes its existence to the country’s queen, has created a program that flags sex abuse images and reads data that’s often attached to digital photos, such as when and where they were taken.
Software developer Christian Berg a decade ago contacted Queen Silvia’s World Childhood Foundation with an idea for the technology at the heart of NetClean.
The queen suggested Berg create a company to develop the software because that would allow him to expand more quickly than a non-profit could.
The Foundation was an early investor in NetClean, which donates the program to police in more than 30 countries including Sweden, the US, Britain and Germany. The company also sells it to corporations such as telecom gear manufacturer Ericsson, phone carrier TeliaSonera, and Barclays, which use it to ensure employees and subscribers don’t traffic in child porn.
Still, the volume of images continues to increase and paedophiles are getting more creative in circumventing police, as seen in the rapid growth of webcam sex abuse in developing countries and huge increases in the number of people downloading the software needed to reach TOR.
“We find messages on TOR saying ‘Haha police you cannot touch us’ because they know they are anonymous,” said Troels Oerting, head of the cybercrime unit at Europol in The Hague. “And with the webcam, evidence disappears when streaming ends.”
Oerting praises Terre des Hommes for raising awareness of webcam sex abuse, but he says little of the evidence gathered in the Sweetie project will stand up in court since many judges would consider it to be entrapment. Child abuse “is probably the worst of all violations” he said. “So if we arrest people for this we have to make sure it’s true, and it’s best to include professionals.”
Australian federal police in February made the first arrest with help from Sweetie, charging a 37-year-old man in Brisbane with possession of child porn after they found material on USB drives and a laptop.
Activist Guyt has been asked to provide a statement in the case, and he has been in contact with police in countries including Bolivia, the Philippines, the US, the UK and Canada to provide information on how Terre des Hommes built Sweetie.
Back at the warehouse in north Amsterdam, Terre des Hommes has dismantled the Sweetie operation. There’s no more black paper covering the windows (during the eight weeks Sweetie was online, the group hid the operation, telling the owner it was shooting an Ikea catalogue). The hundreds of pictures of the sex predators have been removed from the walls.
So have the printouts of conversations the men had with the 10-year-old avatar – snippets of chats like “I’m very badly horny” or “I’ll make a mess of your face” – that stand in stark contrast to the screen shots from their Facebook pages of laughing family members, toddlers, a pregnant wife, an infant daughter.
“Our objective was to show how easy it is to identify these predators,” said Guyt. “And we exploded a hand grenade.” – Bloomberg