On the trail of child pornography

FBI goes undercover via Internet to catch pedophiles overseas

July 09, 1999|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

The suspected child molester was on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. But the FBI in Baltimore followed a trail along the Internet to his door.

Police in North Umbria, England, acting on the FBI information, arrested Paul Cunningham, ending what they said was years of abuse of children that was documented in the pictures Cunningham posted on the World Wide Web.

For FBI officials, who are trying to increase cooperation worldwide in infiltrating the shadowy world of online pedophilia, the Cunningham arrest June 25 was a coup -- and they're hoping for more international arrests.

"Many pedophiles recognize that there are limitations from one country's laws to the next," said Special Agent Peter A. Gulotta, spokesman for the FBI's Baltimore office. "But we're trying to build more and more cooperation with other countries, and we're seeing some success."

The FBI's 32 legal attache offices around the world have recently gotten a crash course in Operation Innocent Images, the bureau's undercover program aimed at finding online child molesters. In March, several CIA station chiefs in Europe came to Maryland to get an overview of the program.

Federal agents and prosecutors say that they might try to extradite child pornographers from other countries, in what would be a first for Innocent Images and American law enforcement agencies. Prosecutors say they are considering bringing Cunningham to the United States to face charges because the images he circulated were placed on a U.S. computer bulletin board.

He is charged in England with sexual abuse, rape and production of child pornography. Three children he allegedly molested and took pictures of were taken into protective custody by local officials in North Umbria.

"We're asking foreign governments to get involved," Gulotta said. "There are some countries where child pornography is not illegal, but we think many countries will cooperate since their children are being victimized."

Among the countries the FBI has been working with is Japan, which three weeks ago made production and distribution of child pornography illegal.

Chief among the aims of international anti-child pornography efforts is to catch those who supply the pictures. Often, the suppliers are those seen molesting children in the photographs.

Once in the public domain, such pictures typically circulate for decades, said FBI Special Agent Michael W. DuBois, an Innocent Images investigator credited with making an astute observation that led agents to Cunningham.

"These children will be victimized for many years to come," DuBois said, "whenever their pictures are seen on someone's computer."

The pictures are often difficult for investigators to trace because the images change hands so many times, DuBois said.

"The holy grail for many of these pedophiles is new stuff," he said. "They've been collecting pictures for decades. When new stuff comes along, it's like dropping bait into a shark tank. They're all over it. Before you know it, hundreds of people have it."

His knowledge of that mentality helped DuBois identify Cunningham as the source of a recent batch of pictures that made their way onto the Internet. When reviewing a bulletin board last month, the agent noticed that the pornographic pictures had been taken with a high-quality digital camera.

"It obviously wasn't a picture that had been circulating for a while," DuBois said. "It was a new posting on the bulletin board, so the odds were good that the person who posted it had taken the picture."

The FBI in Baltimore contacted the bureau's legal attache office in London, providing it with the name of the Internet service provider (ISP) of the person who had posted the pictures.

The legal attache, with copies of the pictures, made contact with authorities in Britain, who in turn called the ISP company. The system administrator of the ISP tracked records at the company to identify Cunningham as the person who posted the photos, the FBI said.

Statistics aren't kept on how many times the FBI has asked for assistance from other countries in Innocent Images cases. But in the year ending June 30, 1998, the FBI passed on information in 24,000 investigations -- ranging from embezzlement to murder to child molestation -- to foreign countries.

The pornographic pictures of children that fuel the online pedophile community have come from all over the globe, according to FBI investigators. In recent years, many of the photographs have come from the former Soviet Union, as well as nations along the Asian Pacific rim that do not have strong child pornography laws.

Perhaps the largest international sting operation on computer child pornographers came last year when federal agents broke up a worldwide ring that dubbed itself "Pedo University."

Members of the ring called themselves "faculty members" and used nicknames in trading information, pictures and videos of children 13 and younger engaged in sexual activity. Among the 13 men arrested around the world were three Canadians, two Swedes and a New Zealander.

Seven were arrested in the United States, where federal agents surmise that the bulk of child pornographic materials are circulated. But the source of the material is difficult to get a handle on, says the FBI's Gulotta.

"It becomes like trying to track down the original owners of stamps in a stamp collection," he said. "Trying to find the original source of pornography is quite an experience. You just don't know where it's originating from."

Pub Date: 7/09/99

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