Child sex predators are increasingly exploiting anonymous browsing technology to create online safe havens where hundreds of thousands of offenders congregate to stream child pornography, devise and execute insidious schemes to exploit minors online, and crowdsource advice for avoiding capture by law enforcement, according to a senior Justice Department official.
Tor, the anonymous browser of choice for child sex predators, was created with the honorable aim of protecting “personal freedom and privacy.” But offenders have exploited the technology to create massive pedophile dens online that are virtually impossible for law enforcement to track down.
One such site, dedicated to the abuse of newborns and toddlers aged zero to 5, has tens of thousands of members. A law enforcement review of nine Tor sites hosting child sex abuse discussions, videos, and images tracked 1.9 million members last fall. Some sites were adding thousands of new users every day.
How low do these offenders go? One user sent another an ultrasound image of his unborn girl, describing how he “couldn’t wait for his daughter to be born” so he could introduce her with an explicit photograph to other offenders in a darknet group dedicated to abusing newborns and toddlers.
“It really doesn’t get younger than that and the threat doesn’t get any greater than that,” said a senior Justice Department official.
Under the veil of encryption and anonymity technologies, conversations like this are common across the darknet, which is as easy to access today as downloading and installing the free Tor browser.
As darknet child sex abuse dens have grown, matured, and stabilized, the production and proliferation of child pornography have exploded. Reports of online child sexual abuse and exploitation tracked by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children grew tenfold from 2013 to 2017, from 1 million to 10 million. The number of identified child victims grew fivefold between 2010 and 2017, from roughly 3,000 to 15,000 sexually abused children.
Over a six-week period in 2017, ARACHNID, an artificial intelligence project in Canada, identified 5.1 million web pages hosting child sex abuse material with 40,000 unique images of child sex abuse. The project is now identifying 100,000 new unique images of child sex abuse per month. Out of the 790,000 notices ARACHNID has sent to providers, 85 percent involve children not previously identified by police.
Meanwhile, the number of prosecutions against child sex predators in the United States has remained relatively steady, peaking at 3,487 defendants charged in 2014. Encryption and anonymous browsing technologies are part of the problem. The global nature of the crime and the widespread adoption of built-in cameras and smartphones are potent multipliers.
Law enforcement officials have been left frustrated as they witness the abuse but don’t have the means to defeat the technology that helps the offenders stay anonymous.
“Imagine watching in the real world a child you know being abused behind an impenetrable glass as law enforcement just stand there watching it happen on a daily basis,” the official said. “Some law enforcement even describe watching a child age through the abuse images.”
“The natural human reaction to that is an extreme compulsion to do something to react, to save that kid. That’s what law enforcement has,” the official continued. “But some of the technology that exists today makes that ability extremely, extremely difficult. So that’s probably the number one challenge above all others.”
One of the most successful crackdowns against a darknet pedophile website resulted in the arrests of 870 suspects around the world in 2015. Codenamed “Operation Pacifier,” the FBI sting targeted Playpen, one of the world’s largest child pornography websites, with over 200,000 registered members.
The FBI took control of Playpen for two weeks and used a court-approved hack to install hidden software on the computers of 8,000 users. Despite the sophisticated nature of the operation, law enforcement ultimately captured only a small number of offenders.
According to law enforcement officials tracking darknet sites, the offenders now cite Operation Pacifier as an example of how safe it is to prey on children and share child sex abuse material on the darknet, emphasizing that less than 1 percent of Playpen’s members were caught.
That anonymity has given offender communities an opportunity to stabilize and grow rapidly. One child sex abuse site has 432,235 registered members, according to WePROTECT Global Alliance.
The giant pedophile hubs have created unprecedented demand for a constant stream of new child sex abuse material. These darknet dens encourage offenders in their vice, give them a sense of validation, and provide training and status, all the while normalizing child sex abuse on a global scale.
The sites also help predators to network with each other, which has led to an erosion of inhibitions and the creation of never-before-seen schemes to exploit children online.
In a recent case, seven men received lengthy sentences for conspiring to lure underage girls to a website that tricked them into thinking they were interacting with their peers on a webcam. What the children were actually watching were pre-recorded videos of other minors engaging in sexually explicit behavior. The predators then encouraged their victims to mimic these acts. Their youngest victim was 10 years old.
The abuse doesn’t end once the offenders trick a child into sharing an explicit image or video. Offenders use the images they capture as collateral in a “sextortion” scheme. The offenders demand more images under the threat that they will share the explicit material with the child’s family and friends.
A 38-year-old Dutch citizen was sentenced to 10 years in prison last year for running a sextortion scheme on 39 victims. One of the victims, Canadian teenager Amanda Todd, committed suicide when she was 15 after sharing a video detailing her abuse. The Dutch offender now faces extradition to Canada.
But even if a child isn’t subject to sextortion, the knowledge that the photos the predators obtained will be shared online is haunting.
“I live in constant fear that someone will see my pictures and recognize me and that I will be humiliated all over again. … I am powerless to stop it. … It’s like I am being abused over and over and over again,” an underage abuse victim told the court in the case Paroline v. United States.
There is no age that is safe from child sex predators online. According to a senior law enforcement official, some child pornography gangs specialize in targeting pre-verbal children, since they can’t report the abuse. The offenders plot together, test images for online avatars that work best for tricking children, and share tools for staying anonymous. Online games that may appear completely harmless can be infiltrated by predators looking to lure and sexually abuse children.
Technology is also facilitating child sex abuse crimes previously unheard of to the general public. One such case concluded on Aug. 24 with a 20-year sentence for Dwayne Stinson, 53, who was found guilty of paying women in the Philippines to stream live video in which they abused children at his direction. Some of the victims were 6 or 7 years old.
Services similar to the ones Stinson procured are becoming widespread and affordable. The victims tend to be from Third World countries, where children are caught at the intersection of lax law enforcement, widespread poverty, the rapid advent of the internet, and affordable mobile devices.
The international nature of the crime further complicates law enforcement’s work. In a single case, victims may be in one country, the offender in another, and the evidence in a third. Even when investigators get their hands on the evidence—hard drives, smartphones, or cloud data—encryption may end up thwarting an otherwise successful investigation.
In recognition of the challenge, the Justice Department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section has a team of cyber forensics experts and dozens of lawyers who specialize in aiding in the prosecution of online child sex abuse cases around the country.
The United States is also part of a global effort by dozens of nations to stop child sex abuse and exploitation online as part of WePROTECT Global Alliance. The organization recently issued a devastating threat report on the online child sex abuse epidemic.
“It uncovers disturbing new trends such as growth of offender communities protected by unprecedented levels of security; ‘on-demand’ and crowd-sourced production of [child sex exploitation and abuse] material; as well as live- streaming, grooming and sextortion,” Arnie Allen, the chair of WePROTECT wrote in the foreword of the report.
“The explosion of smartphone technology around the world has acted as a catalyst to intensify the threat.”