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The Toronto Sun
Wednesday, February 18, 1998

Policing the dark side of the Web

OPP's Project P probes purveyors of pornography

by Ian Harvey, connect@sunpub.com

There's erotica and there's pornography.

But when Det. Bob Matthews first started laying criminal charges on the subtle differences between the two back in 1975, he often found himself attacked and accused of "making moral judgements".

Some 23 years later, the OPP's Project P unit is still shutting down smut peddlers but no one, other than the targets of their investigations, is complaining.

That's because the focus of Project P has shifted dramatically, both in terms of media and content. Whereas the early years were spent chasing magazines and later videos that depicted explicit sex involving mostly adults, these days its entire operation is dedicated to combating child pornography on the Internet.

OPP Detective CYBERSMUT ... OPP Det. Bob Matthews with a handful of computer floppy disks containing hundreds of images depicting kiddy porn. Project P is a seven-man unit devoted to tracking down online child pornography and the perverts who purvey it.
With the proclamation of Bill 128 in 1993, police were given a strong brief to attack a clearly defined target.

"It was legal to possess a house full of child porn", said Matthews, "You just couldn't make it, sell or distribute it."

No more. Even simple possession of kiddy porn -- any images or written words depicting sex involving those who are or appear to be under 18-years of age -- is illegal. Period.

But child pornography hasn't disappeared overnight as a result of the tough legislation. If anything, there's probably more of it involving more people in more places around the world, concedes Matthews.

Shooting fish in a barrel

The bonus, however, is that catching the perverts is also much easier -- almost like shooting fish in a barrel.

The boom in desktop computers and the rise of the Internet has bonded an underground sub-culture into a global network. For the most part, they are almost always men, likely to be loners whose pathetic obsession drives them to spend countless hours in front of their monitors, groping through cyberspace for more and more images.

What they seek is indescribably sickening: From babies to toddlers to pre-pubescent children, girls and boys engaged in sexually suggestive poses, in explicit sexual acts with each other or adults or even animals.

Some are "classic" images that have been circulating for years. Others are newly introduced to the circuit, either as raw unmanipulated images or increasingly, says Matthews, as images "morphed" or digitally altered, using the latest software to alter them. In this way, younger looking models from adult pictures can be created or innocent pictures can be altered into more nefarious forms.

The offenders ages range from late teens and early 20s to seniors, said Matthews, adding that the boom in computers has opened the door to a younger median age.

"The higher the income, the better the equipment", he said. "I've seen them running everything from a 286, basically a boat anchor, to high-end expensive graphics-type computers."

Theirs is a full-fledged addiction. They are junkies desperate for another hit, adding to massive collections of files literally jammed into storage, trading the images amongst themselves or posting them in chat rooms to elicit responses.

"We went online (into an Internet chat group) the other day posing as a 13-year-old girl", said Const. Rob Nickel. "Within seconds we had dozens of hits like bees to honey."

And that's the weak link and key for police. Spectacular raids, with seizures involving tens of thousands of computer files, often result because of the global nature of the Net.

Kiddy pornophiles love to share their goodies and that's why they are vulnerable.

Some are "passive" participants, trolling chat rooms for other like-minded collectors while others are "active" players, looking to strike up conversations with potential victims and, by extension, perhaps create an opportunity to make more pornography.

Tracing electronic trail

E-mail leaves an electronic trail which can allow anyone to trace a message back to the senders' mail server, if not the sender themselves.

Even if the OPP miss him, the chances other police forces around the world are also checking sites.

Last year a British policeman tipped Metro cops to a North York man dealing in child porn. The raid produced 1,000 files of hardcore kiddy porn. Likewise, a tip from the U.S. netted 20,000 files from an Ottawa area man.

The lengths police go to nab Internet kiddy porn purveyors has yet to be seriously challenged in the courts. Still to be tested at the Supreme Court levels are issues such as privacy and requirements of search warrants.

But in the meantime, warns Matthews, he could occupy 1,000 officers with Internet kiddy porn cases.

"We're overwhelmed", he said of the seven-man unit, adding child porn isn't likely to completely fade.

"Parents have to take some responsibility, both for protecting their children and seeing what they are doing", he said. "We had a case where a teenager had a huge lock on his room to keep his parents out. If they had gone in, they would have seen the kiddy porn he was collecting clearly lying around."

Leaving a youngster alone to explore the Net is dangerous and, at the least, parents should install filtering software like Net Nanny or CyberPatrol to block access to questionable sites.


Copyright © 1998 by The Toronto Sun. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.