by Mary Gooderham, Brian Laghi.
The vast, borderless Internet is the perfect vehicle to transmit pornographic images, and Canada's undercover cyber-cops know the problem is too big to beat. But they do have their success.
The grey-walled office could be in any one of dozens of shipping agencies, warehouses, and airline depots scatteded around an industrial park north of Toronto's Pearson Airport.
Inside are eight desks and computers and a scattering of file boxes. Pictures of workers' children in Halloween costumes and party dresses adorn tabletops and memo boards. A radio turned low plays a Christmas tune and then advertises a dance club, exhorting listeners to "check us out on the Internet."
But through a door secured with a steel cipher lock that requires punching in a number code, the scene in another part of the office is anything but routine.
Here, a wall has been covered with shelves to display row upon row of pornographic videos and magazines displaying pictures of women, couples, children, and animals engaged in various sex acts.
Two workers in jeans and T-shirts seemingly oblivious to the display, work at computers in front. One transmits picture files to a colour printer that continually whirs beside him, while the other periodically picks up the pages that come out of the machine and types descriptions of the images:
". . . Young female, 2 to 4 years old, naked, showing her buttocks . . . Pre-pubescent female with underwear on and left hand on vaginal area and right hand on chest . . . Adult male having anal intercourse with a prepubescent female . . ."These are Canada's foremost cyber-cops, patrolling the electronic highway for criminals, working undercover to track the invisible transfer of billions of bits of unspeakable information.
For the past year they have not even touched video pornography or adult pornography involving things such as bestiality and bondage.
Today their target is the high-tech pedophile.
Their job is disturbing and disheartening, following pedophiles through the dark recesses of the Internet by posing as compatriots or potential victims.
There have been successes: In the past year, about a dozen people in Ontario have been charged with possessing, making, and distributing child pornography, including a 46-year-old top scientist at the National Defence Research Establishment in Ottawa who was accused this week of downloading 20,000 such images into his computer at work.
But with the vastness and accessibility of cyberspace, these new-age crime fighters have no hope of getting to it all.
"This material can be exchanged so quickly and in such volume it's very difficult to detect", said Detective Staff Sergeant Bob Matthews, who heads the pornography unit of the Ontario Provincial Police. "You're not even scratching the surface. There's no illusion: you just do what you can."
The unit, know as Project P, started in 1975 when two officers were assigned to investigate the role of organized crime in the sale and manufacture of pornography in Ontario. Its focus, membership, and techniques have altered as technology for making and distributing porn has exploded, the public appetite for sexual material has expanded, and obscenity laws have changed.
Today it is illegal to make, distribute, or simply possess pornography that is degrading, violent, or dehumanizing or that involves children, the are police particularly target. Simply creating a computer file and downloading such images into it is considered both making an possessing the material; transmitting it to another computer is considered distribution. Possessing child pornography carries a maximum five-year penalty, and making or distributing it carries a 10-year sentence.
Armed with the legislation and a newfound knowledge of computer networks, many police forces are going after pornography as well as other crime on the Internet. Detective Noreen Walters, a pornography investigator in the Vancouver Police Department's Co-ordinated Law Enforcement Unit who says she's "not really computer literate", noted that officers with degrees in computer science and forensic analysis are increasingly common on police forces.
The Edmonton Police Service recently set up a technological-crimes unit to deal with everything from pyramid schemes and illegal marketing scans to objectionable images on the Net.
Staff Sgt. Matthews said his OPP team is the only one in Canada exclusively devoted to Internet pornography, and is among the largest such forces in North America.
"The Internet is the most perfect vehicle there is in today's society to transmit their wares, because of the anonymity involved", he said. "You can send a file from one country to another at the stroke of a key, and it will not be detected by the authorities."
Two years ago, Project P consisted of four staff members with one computer; today there are eight officers equipped with the latest technology and there are plans to add four more in the next year.
The average age of investigators is just over 30, and "nobody's a computer nerd", one member said. Most volunteered for the duty after doing criminal work in uniform or specialized areas such as the antirackets branch, and have picked up computer knowledge by getting on the Internet and learning about its underside.
They speak little about their online techniques because they don't want to tip off adversaries. One supervisor trained in forensic computing can take apart computers and find hidden, deleted, or unsaved data.
For the most part, computer networks help pedophiles meet others like them to exchange advice and information and find images of children involved in sexual acts.
The Internet is divided into several areas, including electronic mail, "newsgroups" where people post information or comments about particular topics, the World Wide Web with sites that offer graphics, sound, and sometimes video, and "chat rooms" where virtual inhabitants converse in "real time" by typing on their computer screens.
Pedophiles frequent the newsgroups and Web sites, but especially meet in the chat rooms, which are accessible to anyone with an Internet service and Internet Relay Chat software, which can easily be obtained on the Web.
On a typical Wednesday afternoon a quick scan of the chat rooms comes up with several pertaining to child pornography and pedophilia, including one dubbed "youngirlf---", which has 6 participants, and another called "preteensexpics", with 16 participants. On a line where users type in the subject of the conversation, someone has written: "Little girls, they're not just for breakfast any more."
Known only by nicknames as Dickey and Spanker, users talk to each other about their private collections of pornography, offering to let anyone who's interested have a look, or especially trade images, by dialing directly into their computers.
Most pedophiles have a large quantity of child pornography, known to experts as a "collection" or "stash".
Peter Collins, a forensic psychiatrist at the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto who has advised the OPP, RCMP, and Metro Toronto Police on sex crimes, said the material serves a masturbatory purpose for pedophiles. He's not surprised to hear allegations of large collections seized by police.
"If you have a certain erotic attraction in stuff, then the more you have, the better", he said, adding that the definition of erotica can include almost any "collateral material" related to children, such as advertisements and catalogues that feature them fully clothed.
The Internet just makes hard-core material more easily available, he said, permits anonymity, and lets pedophiles who might once have been more isolated exchange information and rationalize their activities with like-minded individuals. But such material on a public forum like the Internet will not turn people into pedophiles, Dr. Collins said, because "it's a deep, erotic preference... developed at an early age" and not something picked up by simply looking at child pornography.
The images come from a variety of sources and countries. Some are "scanned" into the computer from underground pedophilic magazines that can be as much as 20 years old. Others are believed to have been homemade by pedophiles filming children being abused on tiny video cameras attached to their computers.
The resolution of the images is clear and can be computer-enhanced. The result on a monitor or in a printout is similar to the quality of a good colour photocopy or a photograph.
Almost all of the still images are grouped into series that document entire - or sequential - sexual acts. Some include only a handful of pictures; others stretch on for as many as 500. "That would take about 20 minutes to download into a good computer", one investigator said.
It used to be the older the pedophile, the bigger the collection, Staff Sgt. Matthews said. But today a young person can have as many images as a veteran, and pedophiles can specialize. When police arrested a 22-year-old man last month in Kirkland Lake, Ont., on charges of possessing, making, and distributing child pornography, they seized approximately 30,000 still pictures, 375 sexually explicit stories, and 160 video clips, all stored on a computer hard drive and a series of floppy disks.
Documenting the material is time-consuming and costly. Two weeks ago, Project P got a new $17,000 colour laser printer, which can produce an image of each graphic file every minute, to replace the old ink-jet printer that required seven or eight minutes per shot.
Still, with the new machine working as many as 12 hours a day, it will take more than two months to printout and bind the images in the Kirkland Lake case. Thousands of images are outstanding in several other cases, and another 20,000 in the one involving the Ottawa scientist.
The printouts are required for defence lawyers, who must, however, view them in the Project P office, because otherwise the lawyers would technically possess the material. A written description, called a breakdown, of each shot is provided for the defence to keep.
Staff Sgt. Matthews said printouts are also required because computer disks don't have the same effect on judges as the real thing. "If you walk into court with a little floppy disk in your hand or three or four of them and say, `Here we have 20,000 or 30,000 files of child pornography', it doesn't have any kind of impact."
Jeffrey Shallit, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo and vice-president of Electronic Frontier Canada, an organization devoted to free speech in cyberspace, said media reports about cases such as the one in Kirkland Lake have blown the issue out of proportion, making people think child pornography is everywhere on the Internet and prompting them to call for control of the medium.
"The perception is inaccurate, and I think it's aided by sensationalist reporting", he said. "There are busts all the time for child pornography that's on paper, but you don't see anyone saying we should investigate how paper is produced and sold to avoid the problem."
But police say the publicity surrounding the Internet is justified, and they hope it will deter child pornographers.
They say that each time an arrest is announced, they get tips from the public. This week, one Project P officer took a telephone call from the owner of a computer repair shop saying he had found 50 megabytes of pornography, depicting children as young as 7, on the hard drive of a machine he was working on.
In Edmonton, the recent arrest of two people on child-pornography charges has resulted in a significant increase in reports of computer crimes, said Det. Dave Johnston of Edmonton's technological-crimes unit.
The arrests caused a stir in the city because one of the men charged was a civilian employee of the police, although the force's computers were not alleged to have been used.
Police hope the publicity will warn people that the Internet is not benign.
Det. Waters of the Vancouver police said parents should be alert to connections their children make on the computer through chat rooms and bulletin boards.
"Pedophiles no longer just meet children in parks; now they come right into homes", she said. "You try to safeguard your children about talking to strangers. But here they don't see a face, they don't see the dangers, they're apt to talk about more intimate things on computers."
Det. Waters said that police have seen many cases of pedophiles trying to "groom" young people by discussing increasingly sexual topics with them on the computer and then arranging meetings. They especially target adolescent boys who are generally "mixed up about what they are, sexually". Two Vancouver boys aged 14 and 16 were "lured", she said, but were caught before anything untoward happened.
Det. Johnston said the overwhelming amount of material on the Web forces his Edmonton unit to focus on preventive measures. He has posted a pamphlet on the force's Web page with tips for parents on how to protect their children from high-tech pedophiles. The pamphlet, developed by a U.S. police force, lists a number of steps, such as telling children never to give out their full names, addresses, or phone numbers on line.
The department provides parents with lists of computer files that contain video or graphic images, and Det. Johnston advises: "If you're going to have a computer, have it in the family room" rather than in a child's bedroom.
Dr. Shallit of Electronic Frontier Canada said that although he supports freedom of speech on the Internet, he's aware of the dangers. After reading a media report about pedophiles searching for pictures of children on the Net, he took a shot of his two-year-old off his own home page.
But the growing "backlash" against the Internet because of pornography is not justified, he said, suggesting that similar worries were posed over technologies in the past, from telephones to radio and television.
Dr. Shallit said that society will have to decide on the appropriate response, and that perhaps more should be done to stop the production of child pornography. He warned that targeting the exchange of such material on the Internet may prove impossible, especially as science provides increasingly sophisticated means of escaping detection, such as encryption technology that allows data to be hidden by code.
Meanwhile, an association of companies that provide space on the Internet have agreed to remove illegal material from their offerings, including child pornography and hate literature. Users are encouraged to report such sites to their service providers, which themselves do not search for problematic material among the Web sites and newsgroups they offer.
"We will not carry anything that is illegal", said Margo Langford, a lawyer and director of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers.
Ms. Langford, who is also vice-president and legal counsel for iSTAR Internet Inc., a large provider in Ottawa, said that pulling a site is a serious measure, ordered only when the contents are obviously illegal.
Many Internet providers argue that the Net should be free from regulation, she said. "There's a huge gulf out there."
But she noted that the government will regulate the Net if providers don't do so. Some companies, such as iSTAR, provide blocking mechanisms with which employers or parents can prevent access to almost any service, including newsgroups and chat rooms.
At the federal level, Industry Canada officials are putting together a study concerning who is liable for offences on the Internet. The study will look at fixing responsibility for matters such as libel, copyright violations, and the control of criminal material, such as hate literature or child pornography, and it may be the framework for future legislation.
But federal Justice Department officials are still unsure whether new laws are needed. Criminal laws that restrict child pornography, hate literature, and instruction booklets -- such as how to build an explosive device -- apply to the Internet in the same way they do to other media.
Justice officials are in a quandary about a number of areas, such as the cross-border transfer of illegal material. For example, the government may be able to seek extradition of people in other countries who deliver hate literature or child pornography through e-mail to a Canadian consumer.
"They may be breaking Canadian law", said Paul Saint-Denis, senior counsel for criminal law policy. The department is considering laws that would make it illegal to export and import hate literature, a move that would cover the Internet.
Staff Sgt. Matthews said that short of enacting new laws to deal with the problem, the key for police is to stay up on the technology, finding new ways to infiltrate the Internet and applying current legislation when crimes are discovered.
He and other members of the force are determined to pursue the charges they have laid through the courts, and hope severe penalties will be levied.
The investigators are frustrated that illegal material such as child pornography is so accessible, but their job is still satisfying, Staff Sgt. Matthews said, especially because the team is now providing a lot of support to police forces around the world interested in undertaking similar investigations.
Project P has also offered hope to people who have memories of being abused as children and believe it was recorded on film, or to parents who fear their children were assaulted by pedophiles. Every week Staff Sgt. Matthews gets letters accompanied by photographs of children asking whether investigators have seen them on the Internet, with the hope that they can identify the abusers.
The smiling faces of these children, posing in class photographs or hamming it up in photo booths, are posted above the computer that is printing out the images of child pornography in Project P's back room. The investigators say it's almost impossible to look for matches among the hundreds of printouts a day, but they like to have the photos posted there as a reminder of the innocent victims hurt by the trade in such material.
"We don't sit and watch this stuff as we print it out: If you did, it would make you sick", one said, "But we hope that we're getting to the people who are responsible for it, and that feels good."
Photo: (show screen shot of Edmonton Police web page about Netproofing your children URL = http://www.gov.edmonton.ca/police/service.html