Pedophiles on the Internet: Law Enforcement Investigates Abuse

By Lesce, Tony | Law & Order, May 1999 | Go to article overview

Pedophiles on the Internet: Law Enforcement Investigates Abuse


Lesce, Tony, Law & Order


Even before the Internet, pedophiles used computers and modems to communicate, create networks, exchange information on victims and otherwise further their aims. In the 1980s, police broke up several networks of child molesters who used computers to pinpoint potential victims and to coordinate their efforts.

Today, the situation is far worse because of the spread of computers and the popularity of the Internet, which provides worldwide access to anyone with a modem. In nations with traditions of freedom, it is very difficult to prohibit communications that aid pedophiles. Generally, there must be a connection to a specific crime.

U.S. Customs used to seize many pornographic books and magazines entering the country, but this has dwindled because there is no longer much need to send photographic prints through the mail or via commercial parcel services. The Internet enables sending pornography literally with the speed of light through a medium that bypasses ports of entry.

There are many obstacles to prosecution. Advocating a particular sexual practice is not the same as conspiring to commit illegal acts, and this loophole is very convenient for many groups that operate on the borderline. Another problem is jurisdiction, made more difficult and more intractable by the truly worldwide nature of the Internet.

A little-stated fact is that the reason do-it-yourself photographic media, such as Polaroid cameras, camcorders and digital cameras, have sold so well is because they allow discreet, in-thehome photo and movie production. Back when photographs had to go to commercial processors, there was a greater risk in producing pornography. Now, any person with a camcorder or digital camera can produce his own pornography, and even kiddie porn, with much greater safety than ever before.

Images from camcorders, and especially digital cameras, are very suitable for transmission on the Internet. Most digital cameras come with software and connectors to allow uploading into a computer as part of the package. This is why there is a tremendous number of pornographic web sites on the Internet.

By themselves, because of their sheer number, web sites pose a challenge for the investigator. It's a major task to screen all of them to determine which show promise as leads to pedophiles. Those showing photographs pose a further complication because many porn models of legal age are made up to look younger. Passing youthful-looking models off as minors is simulated kiddie porn, and not illegal. Few states have laws banning simulated kiddie porn. Arizona has a statute banning models who look 15 or younger, but getting a jury to agree on the apparent age of a model they know to be of legal age is a hindrance to prosecution.

One thing that helps law enforcement is that pedophiles tend to be collectors, amassing large numbers of pornographic materials, and never throwing anything away. Some pedophiles have handed their collections over to colleagues for safekeeping when they come under investigation, hoping to retrieve them when they finish their prison terms years later.

How Pedophiles Protect Themselves

Pedophiles breaking the law often take measures to protect themselves from prosecution. These techniques include hiding incriminating evidence, such as correspondence, "kiddie porn," and other materials that can implicate them in felonies. Physical concealment is one technique. Technologically advanced methods such as encryption is another. Text and photographs can be encrypted so that they are totally unrecognizable except to one that knows what they are and who has the key.

Officers serving search warrants against suspected computer pedophiles should be aware that many of these people are technically sophisticated, and may "booby-trap" their computers to destroy evidence. With modern computer programs, it isn't difficult to generate a "macro" that will erase the entire hard drive with the press of a single key, while officers are unaware that the evidence is vanishing in front of their eyes.

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