Victoria police gear up to join hunt for Internet pornographers and other cyber crooks
The images are devastating and criminal. And thanks to the newest in technology, the depictions of child pornography are proliferating at an astonishing rate, say police officials who investigate them.
Now, Victoria police Const. Paul Brookes is taking a knack for computers and turning it into a tool for fighting some of the worst crime on one of the newest fronts.
"There needs to be the ability to respond to computer-related crime," said Brookes, 33.
Along with Victoria Cpl. Glen Shiels, Brookes is one of a handful of Greater Victoria police officers who are studying the new field of computer forensics and Internet crime.
They're inspired by international investigations such as Project Snowball -- the child pornography probe unveiled last week that has placed thousands of people under investigation in Canada and around the world.
In Victoria, there are 20 active investigations for Snowball. Vancouver is looking into 80, Nanaimo has 10, Saanich has 15, and Courtenay and Oak Bay are involved as well.
Two years ago, police in the U.S. told Canadian officials, including the Ontario Provincial Police, they had a list of 2,329 Canadian names to investigate. The OPP passed on the names from the Victoria area to police here, said Deputy Chief Geoff Varley.
"It was a matter of people who used their credit card," Varley said. All the names were collected from a list of porn subscribers seized from a Texas-based database that acted as a clearinghouse for subscription-only porn Web sites.
Right now, when Victoria police participate in investigations such as Snowball, computers and equipment they seize are sent to RCMP in Vancouver.
That, Brookes said, causes backlogs and waiting times.
In response to that, Victoria police held a competition last spring to send two officers away for training in Ottawa.
"It was a thorough test on some of the computer basics," said Brookes, 33, an eight-year member of the department.
Passing the test meant being selected by a three-person interview panel and after that, heading off to the nation's capital for a few weeks of training at the Canadian Police College last fall.
The first course was about electronic search and seizure, said Brookes, who also worked in Lloydminster, Sask., as an RCMP officer for six years.
"It's the basics in regards to the seizing of a computer," he said. "It's controlling the scene." On occasion, control means examining a computer to make sure it hasn't been set to detonate a booby trap.
The second course they took dealt with cyber crimes, including pornography and fraud, two areas that have flourished on the Internet.
"It's like the Wild West," Brookes said.
The students learned about the newest in technology developed to crack codes, a program called EnCase.
The next step is to complete a six-month apprenticeship with RCMP in Vancouver. But since money within the department is tight and both Brookes and Shiels have regular patrol duties, heading to the mainland is an uncertainty.
But West Shore RCMP fraud specialist Const. Andrew Cowan is going to Vancouver this week for his third Internet investigator course.
RCMP Staff Sgt. Bruce Brown said Canadian law and police have been slow to catch up with the booming cyber crime world. "We are coming to the realization that we have been behind," he said. "We need to inject some money and resources."
Brookes said to start a separate computer forensics department would cost an estimated $100,000.
Varley said the need for such a division is growing. The aptly named Snowball -- so far Canada's largest child porn investigation -- will likely turn into a bigger look at more possible child porn possessors. "I think the scope is probably much larger than we think," he said. "I almost guarantee you can spin off other investigations as well."
And since the thousands of names were found on the subscriber list to porn sites hosted by only one service -- in a cyber world where potentially thousands more are providing similar services -- Varley said that's another reason to be certain the need is strong.
"The magnitude of that task is absolutely horrific."
Also devastating is the kind of images police officers and investigators have to look through when they find child porn. Brown said some people might think just looking at the pictures shouldn't be illegal. "But kids have been abused for their picture to be taken," he said.
While the cost for some cash-strapped or small departments might be tough, Brown said sharing Internet specialists between police forces could soon become a reality. Currently, Victoria-area police forces share plenty of resources such as canine units, hostage negotiators, a crowd control unit and a dive unit.