Darknet child porn attracts millions of pedophiles
An image of an adult male sexually assaulting a sleeping 8-year-old girl was posted on an internet message board on a Tuesday in mid-November. Within a week, it had nearly 19,000 views.
That amount of attention for one image would have been unthinkable to law enforcement just a year ago, but authorities say it is now the norm for the seedy corners of the internet known as the darknet, where access to child pornography is growing at an astonishing pace.
Niche perversion sites attract hundreds of thousands of viewers. One dedicated to sexual abuse of infants and toddlers counted 155,000 members as of mid-November.
Authorities say the internet gives pedophiles what they want: anonymity and easy access.
“It’s a little bit of whack-a-mole because we take content off of one site and a person brings it up on another site, and we are trying to keep pace,” said Steven Grocki, who heads the Justice Department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, or CEOS.
The darknet, a subset of the internet hidden from standard web browsers, is reached using free software such as Tor, which stands for “the onion routing project.” Tor uses “relays” across the internet to create complex trails of access that make it impossible for law enforcement to track a user’s online movements.
That makes the darknet home to all kinds of illegal activities, including the sale of stolen credit card data, firearms and opioids.
It also has fueled a child-porn epidemic, Mr. Grocki said.
Federal prosecutions are up more than 60 percent over the past decade. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says online reports of abuse or exploitation jumped from 1 million in 2013 to 10 million in 2017. The number is expected to top 14 million for 2018.
Even those numbers understate the problem because so much goes unreported.
“A child only needs to be alone for a moment, particularly for very young children, and a friend or relative can then easily take an explicit picture with their phone, and a new victim is created, one who could be harmed in perpetuity once the image is posted to the internet,” Mr. Grocki said.
Prosecutors are working to keep up.
Child-sex crime cases rose 150 percent from 2004 to 2015, while pornography-production prosecutions surged 225 percent. The largest increases in each category were from 2006 to 2007, which coincides with the first year smartphones became commercially available.
Analysts say the internet has created a self-reinforcing subculture for the perpetrators.
One Pennsylvania man sent his unborn’s daughter’s ultrasound image to another offender and said he couldn’t wait to post explicit photos of her in a group dedicated to infant abuse. The message was discovered when the man was arrested on unrelated child pornography charges.
“This is a relatively new phenomenon because now it is far easier to meet like-minded folks with a few keystrokes and think this is not a problem because people in the community are treating it like any other message board, making it normalized,” said Alison Feigh, a program manager for Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, which educates families on sex abuse prevention.
The abuse goes beyond images.
Pedophiles are using the darknet to hatch schemes to target children and to share tips on avoiding detection. Some members study court prosecution documents to try to glean investigators’ techniques and spread their wisdom online.
Ron Hosko, a former FBI assistant director, compared the warnings to gang lookouts.
“It’s almost like what you see in the inner cities when people shout ‘5-0,’” he said, referring to the code for “cop approaching” from the “Hawaii Five-O” TV series.
He recalled one investigation that snared a child pornography site with hundreds of thousands of users. He warned colleagues at the FBI and Justice Department to be prepared for a “storm of arrests” as they worked to track down the users.
But the community quickly got wise and the host site went dark, undercutting the investigation.
“I expected hundreds, potentially thousands, of arrests. In the end, we arrested less than 100,” Mr. Hosko told The Washington Times.
The schemes used to generate content are frightening in their ability to play on children’s psychology.
One child-porn ring posed as underage boys and girls online pretending to engage in sex acts and then asking their underage victims to mimic the acts in front of their computers’ webcams. The 90 victims some as young as 10 were really watching prerecorded videos but believed they were talking to peers, easing them into the activity.
Seven men were sentenced in August for that scheme.
Offenders also hook victims into increasing levels of activity through what is known as sextortion. Once the culprits get hold of an initial image, they threaten to share it with parents, teachers or friends unless the victim does more.
One Florida man was sentenced in 2015 to 105 years in prison for his sextortion scheme, which involved more than 350 teenage girls. At least five of his victims attempted suicide, and 240 of the victims were never identified.
Sextortion is rampant. In July alone, the FBI said, more than 13,000 complaints were filed.
Law enforcement officials are reluctant to describe tactics that have been successful in disrupting porn rings. They point to the perpetrators’ sophistication in monitoring and adapting.
But Mr. Grocki said authorities are beginning to turn the tide.
“I think there has been a real effort, certainly in the past 10 years, to become better organized as law enforcement entities use technology in ways to make our investigations more efficient and targeting suspects more efficiently,” he said.
He said law enforcement officers measure their success a child at a time: “There is very little as rewarding as knowing that our efforts directly affected that child’s life in a positive way. That’s incredibly motivating and makes it worth the sacrifice our own well-being that may come from investigating and prosecuting these offenses.”