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Inside the Dark Net: Digitizing the cure for child pornography

March 10, 2016 ·  By James Farrell for siliconangle.com

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“Almost everyone,” replies a Filipino woman in an interview on Showtime’s series Dark Net, episode 3, when she is asked how many kids in her neighborhood are earning money, or being forced by their elders to make money, by interacting with people on sex cams. “I hate foreigners,” she says, “using our children as commodities.” The same activist explains that a monthly wage for rope making might earn an individual 3,000 pesos ($64), when one ‘show’ alone may bring just as much, or more money.

The third episode, like the ones that preceded it, focuses on three aspects of one topic – this time child pornography. We meet an American pedophile who openly admits, “I watched child pornography every night; I searched for child pornography every night.” The man, seemingly ashamed of his predatory urges, is currently banned from using the internet or even going to place where children might congregate. “We can’t control our needs,” he says, “but we can control our actions.”

The other two aspects examine how to treat the spread of child pornography, especially in the face of more people in developing nations using the internet as a place to force children to perform sex acts in live chat rooms. One possible treatment that is discussed is the development of virtual reality technology, a pornographic partner for a pedophile. Understandably, this is a sensitive and difficult subject to address.

Just how widespread is child pornography?

According to people interviewed in the series 1 percent of the world’s population are pedophiles, although the number of active pedophiles is much lower. “This can’t be changed,” we are told, “only managed.” Prior to the internet, exchanging or collecting nude images of children was perhaps a matter of great difficulty and danger, but with the rise of the internet, the evolution of the dark web and encrypted websites, this has reportedly led to fairly easy access to child pornography.

The FBI estimates that there are around 40,000 chat rooms currently active which cater to pedophiles, while at any given moment the FBI says something like 750,000 people are looking at some kind of child porn. As an example of this darker side to human nature and how a minority abuses the internet, the show introduces us to a Dutch NGO that carried out a sting operation in which a virtual child (Sweetie) became available to pedophiles on the internet for 10 weeks in 2012.

During this short time it’s reported that 20,000 men approached the 10 year old Sweetie for online sexual interaction within the 19 chat rooms where she was available. The BBC reports that of the 1,000 men that offered to pay money and gave personal information over the internet, “254 were from the U.S., followed by 110 from the U.K. and 103 from India.” We find out that only six of these people were ever convicted. Sweetie 2.0 has since been under development, and will according to reports be used for years this time rather than 10 weeks.

Hacking pedophiles

The series also explains pedophiles may search for child pornography using the Tor network where users can browse anonymously, or discover websites in the deep web, websites that are not indexed by search engines. Perhaps a great victory for the FBI in its mission to clean out the dark web was when this year an operation ended with the closing down of what was reportedly the biggest known child-pornography site.

The website, known as Playpen, reportedly since its launch in August 2014 had 215,000 accounts and 11,000 unique visitors every week. Around 1,500 people will be summoned to court as a result of the operation. After finding the computer server running Playpen at a web host in Lenoir, North Carolina, the FBI ran the site from its own servers. Using a hacking tool known as a network investigative technique (NIT) the FBI used one warrant to find individuals through IP addresses. According to reports this was the first time the FBI had been able to breach the anonymity Tor offers. It managed this by secretly installing a Flash application on a user’s computer which would send a user’s IP address back to the FBI controlled server. This provided the information leading to the identity of the users. The hack is discussed in detail here.

“Fifteen-hundred or so of these cases are going to end up getting filed out of the same, underlying investigation,” Colin Fieman, a federal public defender for the Western District of Washington said, adding that more cases will come. The case has since been called, “the largest law enforcement hacking campaign to date.”

Supply and demand

As the episode explains, pedophilia cannot be cured, and while there is demand there will always be supply. One family we hear in the Filipino village managed to beat poverty by forcing their children to undress in chat rooms, a family that eventually “bought a KIA Sportage.” Police and neighbors often do little, one interviewee explained, as kickbacks and money lending occur in these neighborhoods.

In terms of the demand, the American pedophile interviewed in the episode tells us, “I can’t explain the attraction, all I can tell you is I wish to hell I didn’t have it.”

In an effort understand the attraction and also to tackle child pornography other measures have been taken, which are focused on in the episode. We are taken to The Vault, part of a high security psychiatric hospital in Montreal where the “innermost thoughts of convicted sex offenders” are probed. Subjects are monitored (their “tumescence,” or their erection) while being shown animations of children acting as they might have done when the subject committed the crime. This, we are told, should help the doctors understand the urges and sexual preferences of the subject. It will not, however, prevent pedophilia, or thwart the spread of child pornography on the internet coming from developing nations.

A virtual solution?

While the aforementioned child avatar, Sweetie, led to six arrests, something similar has been discussed as a possible harm reduction. Sweetie, or other such virtual reality avatars, could be used as a cure, not merely a lure. A “virtual partner for pedophiles” may be a possible answer to the child porn (young, virtual girlfriends already exist, though arguably not pornographic in nature) problem.

This is a matter of controversy, and as one researcher in the episode concludes, “using virtual reality to satisfy sexual urges is a very delicate matter.” Not only is such a thing verily taboo, but might it even promote a certain, maybe nascent urge or habit, as is discussed in this in-depth article on the matter? When two Dutch sexologists at Amsterdam’s University Hospital suggested the use of “virtual child pornography under strict government control” to regulate a pedophile’s sexual urges the result was outrage from Dutch netizens. Experts and members of parliament in Holland also spoke out in opposition to such technology.

What the episode makes quite clear is that illegal websites and those that use them are becoming more difficult to find as they “evolve” using for example advanced encryption. At the same time it seems the demand is something humanity is stuck with. Given that poverty isn’t going to disappear in some nations any time soon, there will always be a supply, too. This is the first time Dark Net has left us with a visceral problem, a result of advanced technology that the vast majority of the world would wish didn’t exist.

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