In the US a new breed of cyber detective is scouring the Internet to monitor the activities of paedophiles. FBI agents, US Custom officals and the 'Cyber Angels' are routinely patrolling the Net to flush out illegal activities and protect children from cyber prowlers.
The FBI tackles child pornography on the Net head-on with hundreds of agents going online to find and capture paedophiles. It is a problem the government takes seriously: in last year's budget Congress gave the FBI $10m (£6m) to double the staff working with the undercover operation, Innocent Images.
Special agent, Pete Gulotta of the Baltimore FBI spoke to ZD Net News about the work they do.
ZDNet: What is the history behind Innocent Images?
Gulotta: It began with a local case in 1993. A ten-year-old boy was abducted from his house. The investigation led to a couple who had been using the Internet to lure children into having sex and putting pictures of children engaging in sexual activities online. It became apparent that paedophiles were using the Net so we set up Innocent Images in response. In 1995 we hit one hundred locations. In the Baltimore office we now have about 24 special agents and 30 other helpers. Four more divisions have recently gone online. There are 56 offices nationwide and it is all co-ordinated from this office.
ZDNet: What procedures do your agents use when they go online?
Gulotta: Sometimes they go undercover in chat rooms and pose as children. Sometimes they pose as adults requiring pornography. With the chat rooms, we target people who are prepared to travel to have sex with what they imagine is a youngster. It is a federal offence to cross a state line in order to have sex with a minor.
When targeting those who distribute child pornography, we go online and find someone who is offering images. When we have enough images, we locate the source from the ISP and arrest the perpetrator.
ZDNet: How many images constitute `enough'?
Gulotta: That information is classified but I can tell you it doesn't take very many.
ZDNet: Can you give a general profile of the people you are arresting?
Gulotta: Typically it would be an individual aged 25-40, although we have a few cases where they have been younger or older. Almost always white males. We have only had two cases of women being convicted. They are usually upper-middle class, professionals with no prior criminal history and above average intelligence.
ZDNet: That would not fit in with many people image of a paedophile. Do you think the Internet has created a `new breed' of abusers?
Gulotta: Not a new breed no. I think they would be the same individuals who would hang around school-yards. They have just found a new medium and believe they can operate from the safety of their own home or office.
ZDNet: What type of `professionals' are involved in these activities?
Gulotta: You name it, we've seen it. We have cases of attorneys, police officers, accountants and even elementary school heads. In that last case, the head claimed he was using the Internet to see what was out there to protect the children in his school, which was obviously not the case. After his arrest he was involved in a car accident which was ruled accidental death but which was probably suicide.
ZDNet: Do you think the amount of child pornography and activities of paedophiles is increasing because of the Internet?
Gulotta: It is difficult to quantify because the Internet is so new. I wouldn't say there were more paedophiles, just that we have increased the resources we use to catch them. I like to use a fishing analogy. If you go fishing in a pond you don't know how many fish are out there until you use some bait. If you go in with bait, they will bite.
ZDNet: What can be done to educate children about these dangers?
Gulotta: Parents need to be educated first. They are used to telling their children to stay away from strangers, but not to be alert at home. We don't want to eliminate use of the Internet, just warn people of its dangers. We have produced a brochure, which can be downloaded from our Web site, listing things parents can do. Things like keeping the computer in a communal place.
ZDNet: Are the ISPs co-operative with information about where images are coming from?
Gulotta: Most are, but if not we have the right to subpoena them in order to retrieve the information we need.
ZDNet: What kind of success rate do you have with this operation?
Gulotta: We have a 99 percent conviction rate. Because we are online the documentation in the cases is very good. When we are in the chat rooms, we keep a hard copy of the conversations we have and this can be offered to the jury as evidence. Figures from January 7 put the number of arrests at 254, but from this Friday that has risen to 259.
ZDNet: In the UK the police are limited by what they can do. Going online undercover would be considered entrapment and would not be legal.
Gulotta: I don't consider what we do to be entrapment. Our agents are not asking adults to have sex with them. The adults lead us with questions about our sexual preferences. They control the conversations.
ZDNet: So would the fight against porn and paedophilia be as successful if you could no longer use these methods?
Gulotta: If we couldn't go online, we would be completely thwarted. Simple as that.
Today sees the start of Part 2 in our Web of Porn News Special. ZDNet reports on the efforts of parents, police and governments to stop paedophiles operating on the Net. Take me to the Web of Porn Special