Wonderland used encryption to swap child abuse pictures

The Net reveals its dark side as an international lending library of horrific images

The Internet has become an encrypted network for the global distribution of child pornography, a packed courtroom heard Monday.

Seven UK men appeared before Kingston Crown Court for their first day of sentencing, charged with the distribution of indecent images of children over the Internet through an international pornography ring dubbed the "Wonderland Club".

Judge Kenneth MacRae heard how the "secret and secure" Internet channels in which Wonderland operated allowed paedophiles to exchange indecent images of children over the Web. The channels had a worldwide hierarchy -- access restricted depending on your status within the club -- and contained pictures of children engaged in sexual acts with adults or other children.

In the images distributed by this exclusive club 1,263 children were depicted. Only 17 have been identified to date, six of them children from the UK. All of the children involved were under 16, with one victim being just three months old.

This secret network of paedophiles was infiltrated by the National Crime Squad on 2 September 1998 as part of the world's largest ever international pornography raid codenamed Operation Cathedral. Ian Baldock, 31, was the first Wonderland member to be arrested on 17 October 1997, when 42,000 indecent images of children were found on the hard drive of his home computer. Seven British arrests followed a year later, with 107 paedophiles arrested worldwide as part of the operation.

The raids unveiled a sophisticated world of encryption, where pornographic images of children were sent in a highly secretive manner. Prosecuting lawyer David Perry QC explained, that Wonderland was formed on an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel, that could be accessed through a number of private servers. Security was strict and people could enter by invitation only. It was impossible to access Wonderland by accident.

For reasons of anonymity, the defendants actively distributed pornographic images under pseudonyms such as "Satan", "Sheepy" and "Hopeful Spank Dad".

The private chatroom was run on a special programme that kept the channel in continuous existence. Known as "Sandra" or "Alice" to its regulars, the software acted as a gatekeeper to the channel, denying access to anyone who was not a subscribed member. New members would only be invited to join if they were identified as big "traders". Membership was dependent on bringing at least 10,000 indecent pictures of children to the club.

A Traders Security Handbook showed members how to configure their computers using Bestcrypt coding. "The images could be concealed, and it also showed how action could be taken to confuse the hell out of the cops, and what to do if busted," Perry told the court. Images were swapped through a direct FTP connection to each linked computer. Members "leeched" files from each other's PCs and downloaded them onto their own hard drives.

All seven defendants have pleaded guilty to the charges of possession and distribution of indecent images of children. They will be sentenced Tuesday and face a maximum of three years imprisonment.

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