Police step up investigation of child pornography usersDate: March 13, 2005
Source: Times Argus
The Northfield police chief writes that in these photographs, 7- to 11-year-old girls are seen naked, some apparently drugged, laying motionless as men perpetrate sex acts on their immature bodies.
Shaw's testimony in Vermont's newest child pornography case reveals the unsettling material hiding in the darkest shadows of the Internet underground. An estimated 5 million pictures and movies of about 400,000 juveniles circulate on the World Wide Web daily. Morgan Redes, a 19-year-old Norwich University student from Browns Mills, N.J., is facing seven years in prison for downloading more than 100 such images onto his laptop computer. He was arrested Feb. 23 by Northfield police, the third child pornography arrest Vermont authorities have made this year.
"I've been doing these investigations for 27 years, and still today it sickens me to see a little girl having sex with an adult," Shaw says. "A 7-year-old girl having a sex act performed on her? I'm glad other folks don't have to look at this, because it's a hard thing to see."
Investigating and prosecuting those who possess, distribute or create child pornography has pitted Vermont law enforcement against the evolving high-tech tactics employed by purveyors. Catching alleged offenders like Redes, who can commit the crime without ever leaving their homes, requires intensive investigations that can last months and even years.
Shaw is one of more than 20 Vermont law enforcement officers who spend time investigating Internet crimes against children, a new and growing front on the state's criminal horizon. At the Vermont State Police Computer Crime Division in Waterbury, the three-member staff spends 80 percent of its time investigating cases of child pornography.
"It's pervasive. It's been pervasive for quite awhile," says Mike Sherling, a lieutenant with the Burlington Police Department who heads up the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, a federally funded regional organization started in 1998. "Vermont law enforcement in general started investigating these cases in 1996. … Since then, it's grown exponentially."
Internet technology has helped the child pornography underground evolve from the clandestine physical exchange of grainy Polaroid photos to virtual, anonymous transmission of millions of high-quality images of children as young as 2. For predatory pedophiles who use Internet "chat rooms" to meet potential victims, the pictures are useful tools in a psychologically manipulative "grooming" process that lowers kids' inhibitions and makes them easy prey.
"What will happen is, in these Internet chat rooms, you have these predators who pretend to be a 12- or 13-year-old boy or girl and get into communication with other kids. As part of the process of meeting these kids, we call it grooming, they'll start sending them porn, often times child porn," says Lt. Kenneth Newcomb of the Vermont State Police Computer Crime Division. "Once they're desensitized to that, these kids are far more vulnerable to falling into this trap. They start thinking 'maybe this isn't wrong' and become very vulnerable."
For pedophiles engaged in the more passive act of simply downloading and looking at the pictures in the comfort of their own homes, Newcomb says, the crime is no less victimizing.
"I dispute the assertion that this is a passive or victimless crime," Newcomb says. "Every time a person sends or receives a picture of a victimized child, he is re-victimizing that child."
The lion's share of arrests stem from tips from Internet service providers which alert authorities when they detect the exchange of potentially illegal files. The law requires ISPs to hand over the screen or user names of child pornography suspects; authorities then embark on a multi-step process to determine the identity of that subscriber.
"The (ISP) may receive a complaint, or they may themselves find the files," says Lt. Mark Lauer, also of the state police Computer Crime Division.
The ISPs are prevented by confidentiality agreements from releasing the names of subscribers, but Lauer says they "provide us with copies of images and the user's screen name and e-mail account, which we use to identify the user."
Other investigations stem from undercover operations conducted nationally and internationally by the FBI, customs agents and state law enforcement. Such operations generally have the most substantial impact, exposing child pornography networks that can result in tens of thousands of arrests.
"These peer-to-peer services have created a whole new world. The ability to become a distributor is available to anyone. It's changed the dynamic of how possession and distribution work," says Sherling, who cited a case two years ago in Essex. "This student was distributing child porn via an Internet relay chat room. He had his computer set up as a file server where people could log in and download images and movies of child porn."
Another investigative tool is the old-fashioned neighborhood tip, Lauer says. A family member or friend will find the image, then alert authorities. Redes was investigated and arrested after his Norwich roommate inadvertently stumbled across pictures of naked 2- to 3-year-old children while using Redes' computer.
Suspects often claim the illegal material is the result of an accidental download or rogue e-mail. Shaw says computer specialists analyze where in the computer the files are stored, where they came from and when they arrived, conclusively determining whether or not such claims hold water.
Lauer, Sherling and Newcomb agree the general population should not worry about inadvertently violating child porn laws. Baby pictures of kids taking baths, they say, are not subject to child porn laws, which apply only to "lewd" exhibition of a child's genitals or children engaged in sex acts.
They're too busy with legitimate offenders, anyway, Newcomb says, to spend time looking into even borderline claims.
"We're playing catch-up," he says. "Law enforcement in general plays catch-up, but with the groups we deal with and the nature of the crime, we're always having to find new ways to stop the same crime."
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