Encryption foils Internet child porn prosecutions

Many prosecutions fail because police computer experts are unable to crack the encryption codes used to hide files on suspects' hard drives

The international operation into the world's largest child pornography ring caught only a fraction of its members, and has failed to retrieve the encryption keys for many of the images that the club circulated on the Internet.

A week before one of the seven British members of the Wonderland Club is freed, new evidence has revealed that action was only taken in a quarter of the 46 countries where Wonderland members were known to be active.

In the 14 countries that were invited to participate in Operation Cathedral -- the international police investigation into the Wonderland Club -- many prosecutions failed because police computer experts were unable to crack the encryption codes used to hide suspected illegal images of child pornography on hard drives.

The Telegraph reports that the computer of Stephen Ellis, one of the ten Britons originally arrested in the 1998 raids, could not be decrypted by specialist technicians in the UK. His computer was sent to the FBI and the CIA in America, where they ran code-breaking programmes on it for 30 days, but to no avail.

Ellis committed suicide two weeks after his first court appearance in January 1999, but had he not killed himself he would not have stood trial as there would have been insufficient evidence to convict him.

Unsuccessful British efforts to decipher the 1,200 indecent images traded by the Wonderland club are contrasted by the more recent success of Operation Appal, the largest proactive investigation ever undertaken in the UK to crack down on Internet child pornography. Inspector Terry Jones at Manchester's Obscene Publications Unit, who coordinated the dawn raids on 27 March, reveals that encryption was not something that impeded their investigations.

"For [Operation Appal], encryption is not and never has been a major issue -- it is not as commonplace as one would suspect," said Jones. "If [the defendant] is an abuser, the evidence of him abusing a child will have been circulated on the Internet, and the images can be traced back to him."

The judicial results from Operation Cathedral are less than impressive. Of the 107 people arrested, 50 have been convicted and 22 are still awaiting trial. Eight men committed suicide and the outcome of 27 cases is not known. Nine Wonderland members have been convicted in Britain. Andrew Barlow, sentenced for two years for having 46,000 paedophilic images on his computer, will be released on Monday.

Over 1,200 children were depicted in the images distributed by this exclusive club. All of the children involved were under 16, with one victim being just three months old. The images featured children being tortured, bound in chains or sexually abused. A montage of the children's faces was compiled by the National Crime Squad (NCS), and distributed to police forces around the world. NCS is claiming that 16 children have been positively identified -- one each from Chile and Argentina, 13 from the USA or Britain and one from Portugal.

See also: ZDNet UK's Net Crime News Section.

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