During 10 months, VG built a world map of thousands of men who had downloaded, and sometimes paid for, over 430,000 files showing violent sexual abuse of children. Germany tops the charts with 18,107 downloaders, followed by the United States (13,630), Russia (11,118), the United Kingdom (3,743), and France (3,393). In Norway, VG found 430 downloaders of child abuse material (also known as CAM), of which 78 have already been positively ID-ed by the team.
At the heart of VG’s team are a journalist, Håkon Høydal, and a data scientist, Einar Otto Stangvik. VG’s “Nedlasterne” has attracted considerable public attention in Norway, but much of the data is yet to be exploited. “We’re still figuring out exactly how we can provide the data and expertise to others. We have interested parties in Denmark and Germany,” says Einar Stangvik.
For now, VG’s three-installment series sheds light on an immoral business where everyone, from producers and distributors to consumers, must be held responsible.
How VG Found the Downloaders
The rise of file-sharing has been nothing short of providential for pedophiles. Some file-sharing platforms keep publicly available logs of downloads. VG’s team downloaded these logs, which contained information on 36 million downloads, from file names and dates of download, to usernames, email addresses and IPs.
But how could they find child abuse material, the proverbial needle in a haystack, in these millions of downloads? The team started by searching for abuse file names on both the clear and dark web. This allowed them to compile a list of CAM files, and looked at other downloads made by the same people who’d downloaded these files in hopes of uncovering more CAM.
The team discarded all anodyne downloads, set aside those made outside Norway, and continued to search for additional files downloaded by the same users which could turn out to be CAM. The final result was a list of 5,500 downloads made in Norway. After some careful sleuthing (crossing usernames, social media accounts, email addresses, IPs), the team was able to identify many of the persons behind these usernames.
Who are these people and what compels them to watch children be abused? To answer these questions, VG called several of these downloaders, then traveled the country to meet 10 of them face to face. The resulting documentary (which is in Norwegian) is not for the faint of heart.
When thinking of pedophiles, we may picture a banal-looking, middle-aged, middle-class white man lurking near a playground. Sadly, it is not that easy; there is no stereotypical pedophile, and no typical downloader of CAM.
When asked what most surprised him in the course of his investigation, VG’s Einar Stangvik says: “Looking beyond the constant shock of seeing how and about what these people communicate, along with the brutality of the abuse, I’d say it was how normal these people seem otherwise. They’ve got normal jobs, normal families and, based on social media, normal interactions.”
VG describes the downloaders as “ordinary people, in all professions, all social strata, all income levels, all ethnic affiliations, all religious backgrounds.” Some are students, others hold high-ranking jobs in the healthcare industry. Some are IT specialists, others are artists. Many work with children, as youth leaders in religious organizations, sports coaches, or healthcare workers. While VG’s downloaders are all men, some of the downloaded material featured women abusing children—sometimes their own.
In one harrowing interview, Høydal asks a downloader, “Have you ever considered asking for help?” The downloader answered, “I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong. Everyone has different preferences.”
Another man, asked whether he could be indirectly responsible for the abuse, says, “I’d probably say yes, but it has already happened. And it’s so far away. It’s like… if you see a cow get shot in a film, you don’t think much of it. But if you’re standing right next to a cow that gets shot, you might react. Perhaps then you feel responsible. But not when it’s on film.”
Booming Cross-Border Business
According to a frequently mentioned statistic, the child pornography industry generates $50 billion every year; other sources speak of a $20 billion industry. In other words, the CAM industry is not a select club of old perverts roaming the web in the privacy of their musty apartment—it’s a multibillion-dollar business of global magnitude, with thriving demand and supply.
Longtime CAM viewers who have built gigantic libraries don’t live on their supplies; they are always out for new material. “We’ve talked with downloaders who’ve been doing this for more than 10 years, and claim to have seen it all. Yet they still seek out new material,” says Stangvik.
From websites and email to instant messaging, P2P, and social networks, digital CAM can now be shared through so many channels it has become virtually impossible to eradicate. Even Pinterest, known for its cupcake recipes and makeup tutorials, reported it had found child sexual abuse among its pins. A million images of child sexual abuse are currently circulating on the Internet, and 200 new images appear every day.
Individuals searching for child abuse materials lurk on dark-web forums, looking for file links and passwords. They shop for videos and images based on descriptions provided on these forums.
“Many file names leave no doubt as to their content,” writes VG: “’5 yo cum in mouth.’ ‘Baby 6 yo fuck anal.’ Others are cryptic, but no less painful to read when you know what they hide: ‘With my favorite teddy bear.’ ‘Bathtime.’ One video, depicting the abuse of a 7-year-old girl, ends with the words, ‘Greetings to all our fans.'”
Contrary to these descriptions and links, the files themselves are usually located on the clear web. Users will sometimes have to click through several ads, generating revenue for the website, before they can access the file. They will also have to register (often at a cost) and usually pay for the file, which they can then download and open using the password. The revenues earned by file-sharing sites are shared with CAM uploaders, who either produced the material themselves or purchased it, and whose files are sometimes downloaded tens of thousands of times.
But the CAM industry also thrives on barter, the exchange of one gruesome file for another and on custom-made material. VG writes that “in recent years we have seen several examples, particularly in countries like the Philippines, Thailand and other poor, Southeast Asian regions, of material produced upon request.” British police recently arrested a 53-year-old man who had given direct instructions to adults live-streaming child sexual abuse in the Philippines.
Such practices are frequent in the world of Internet CAM, where videos and images are used as a currency to gain legitimacy and access more material. This may be achieved by “(providing) a new photo in which the abuser has written his name on the child,” as reported by the New York Times.
A significant hurdle in the battle against CAM is the fact that pedophile communities and forums, which contain links to abuse material, are located in the dark web, which is largely accessed through TOR, an anonymity network initially developed by US Naval Research Lab employees in the mid-’90s. Some servers are even configured so they can only receive connections through TOR. They are TOR’s hidden services, populated by: 1) journalists, whistleblowers, and people rightfully concerned with their privacy; 2) people looking to buy drugs; 3) people looking to buy weapons; and 4) people looking to buy child pornography. Nowadays, this last category clearly dominates the others: last winter, Wired reported that over 80% of visits to the dark web were related to pedophilia.
With almost 100,000 registered users, 7axxn is an example of a dark web community where users share large quantities of CAM and bloodcurdling advice. Cracked recently wrote about “Pam,” an undergraduate student who infiltrated 7axxn and discovered that many of its members seemed to believe they were in loving sexual relationships with children.
Those people, who call themselves “child lovers” and their victims “young friends,” normalize their actions by presenting pedophilia as just another sexual orientation, while discussing the merits of various sedatives to knock children out before they rape them. On 7axxn, Pam discovered the Handbook for Pedophiles.
So what can possibly be done against a globalized industry that runs on absolute secrecy, bartered videos and powerless victims who can’t or won’t report the abuse they are suffering?
We are not helpless against the plague of child pornography. Our legislators are in a privileged position to deliver a significant blow to this despicable industry. But while many countries have enacted laws against digital CAM, much work remains to be done worldwide.
In 2006, the International Center for Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC) figured out that only 27 countries had enacted suitable laws against CAM offenses. Ninety-five countries had no laws at all on the matter, 54 failed to define child pornography and 41 did not criminalize possession of child abuse material. These dangerous legal loopholes are directly enabling the CAM industry and endangering the lives of children everywhere.
“While such provisions are positive first steps in recognizing child pornography as an evil that affects child welfare, child pornography is a crime and must be recognized as such. Child pornography represents nothing less than the memorialization of the sexual degradation/molestation/abuse/assault of a child.”
The next must-have weapon in an efficient legal arsenal is the criminalization of downloading. In many countries, producing and sharing CAM is prohibited, while downloading it is perfectly legal. In 2012, this was the case in China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore, among others. Indeed, holding downloaders legally responsible is somehow still controversial. Norwegian blogger Gunnar Tjomlid writes that arresting downloaders is “like arresting weed smokers in order to halt the drug industry. It won’t work. It’s the wrong focus, and a waste of resources.”
A European man watching child porn on his computer can’t possibly be held responsible for the abuse of a little boy living thousands of miles away in Southeast Asia, right? How could he be responsible for the rape of a young girl filmed in the 1980s, digitized from old VHS and watched in the year 2015? Plus, the supply would still exist even if the downloader hadn’t watched it, right? Wrong. First of all, downloaders sustain the industry by showering it with money. Einar Stangvik notes: “for our specific dataset, the vast majority of the child abuse downloads were paid for. Straight off the bat, one can safely conclude that ‘our’ downloaders have (a) financed services that facilitate near-unmoderated sharing of child abuse material, (b) financed individuals that spread such material.”
But what about barter? Trading files means that many downloaders aren’t actually injecting money into the industry. Are these viewers free of responsibility, or at least less responsible? “Many have told us that the primary currency of the pedophile communities isn’t cash, but files,” says Stangvik. “In that case, it goes without saying that downloading is key to both spread and production.”
Barter fuels production, it stimulates the industry, and encourages producers to find new, creative ways of abusing children in order to differentiate their material. “There are so many forums and websites out there where people discuss these abuses, and to some extent let others know what they want to see,” says Stangvik. “That (a) feeds into the fantasies of active abusers and (b) supplies active abuse producers with new ideas for what to show their ‘fans.'”
Viewers’ actions, no matter how passive they appear, bear consequences on the health and safety of children. Downloaders are responsible for the abuse suffered by these children. “I would tell [a downloader] that it is his fault abuse happens. They wouldn’t have filmed it if you hadn’t ordered and paid for it. Therefore, you are guilty,” a victim tells VG.
While punishing downloaders is an urgent necessity, it is also crucial to actively seek out and remove existing material from the Internet. Some legal systems force Internet service providers to report suspected CAM to the authorities, but many countries (Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Brazil, to name a few) still fail in this area. This doesn’t mean that ISPs in those countries don’t ever report CAM. A lot of them do so spontaneously; they are just not legally required to.
Without an international effort to harmonize CAM laws, legal systems that fail to punish all actors of this sickening industry will remain more appealing for downloaders, producers and distributors around the world. But even a perfect legal system would be useless without diligent, relentless enforcement. Allocating financial resources to law enforcement agencies is perhaps the most efficient way to fight the distribution and purchase of Internet CAM.
Asked about Norway’s resources in this area, Justice Minister Anders Anundsen said: “In 2015, 6 million kroner (approximately US$730,000) have been earmarked for police work against Internet child abuse.” But funding remains insufficient, especially in light of the increasing technological challenges the police is going to have to face to battle child pornography. “At this point, it doesn’t seem like politicians were pushed enough by the people to properly commit to more funding for Kripos. But we’re not quite done yet, so there’s still hope”, says Stangvik.
But ISPs also have a central role to play by self-regulating and removing CAM of their own motion, but also by providing the police with access to their users’ metadata in order to facilitate identification of downloaders of child pornography. Insufficient retention of subscriber information by ISPs can be a major obstacle in court, where this type of evidence can make or break an entire case. Ideally, ISPs should be required to retain this data for at least six months.
Police/ISP partnerships, such as the Child Sexual Abuse Anti-Distribution Filter created by the Kripos and Norway’s largest service provider Telenor, should also be encouraged. Carefully phrased, reassuringly neutral, it tells visitors that their IP address will not be recorded and that their information will not be used to identify them. On its first day, the page received 7,000 hits. “It’s a fairly low-cost measure to (sort of) enforce some content restriction, as well as spread information,” notes Stangvik.
Initiatives led by major tech actors can also help. In August 2014, Google revealed it was compiling its own database of child abuse images. These images are compared to photos sent through Gmail; any match with the database is reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). The company told PCWorld that CAM is “filtered both in Gmail and in search requests.”
A Race Against Time to Find and Rescue Victims
Many of the young victims featured in child abuse material are not physically coerced or abducted. They are manipulated into submission and silence by adults who are often members of their own family. Some are ashamed, some are too scared to ask for help. Some are so young they have yet to learn how to speak; several children in the material uncovered by VG are only months old.
These children face a lifetime of psychological trauma and a heightened risk of mental illness (depression, self-harm, post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociative personalities are all frequently observed in survivors of child abuse). Locating them and protecting them from further harm is a public emergency. Here lies perhaps the most daunting task for law enforcement agencies. A Norwegian police officer told VG: “Sometimes kids are easy to identify. In some cases we bang our heads against the wall for several months before we can find out who they are. Unfortunately, we are unable to identify everyone.”
It is all the more urgent to find and help these victims who, in the words of ICMEC, “are getting younger and younger and the images are becoming more graphic and more violent.” In the U.S., 19% of individuals arrested for possessing child pornography had images of children under age 3.
Even worse, ICMEC reports “an increase in the percentage of the most horrific sexual abuse images of children online, from 7% in 2003 to 29% in 2006, demonstrating a growing demand for more severe images of abuse.” Violence is becoming a powerful sales argument. This trend is clearly visible in a heartbreaking passage in VG’s article: “One of these files is perhaps the worst film the Norwegians in VG’s data have downloaded. VG has not watched the film, but on the hidden web it is described this way: ‘1 to 3-years-old, violently abused. Taken by the father. In many of the videos you can hear her scream or cry, and the father must cover her mouth to silence her.'” VG concludes, “The description isn’t a warning, it’s an advertisement.”
Public Health Debate
Beyond the CAM producers who, while not pedophiles, are motivated by greed, and the deluded abusers who claim to be “child lovers,” are a minority of pedophiles who actively seek help. These pedophiles are fully aware of just how intolerable their urges are and they want nothing more than to get rid of them. One 16-year-old pedophile even created a support group for young pedophiles seeking to rid themselves of their attraction to children.
One of VG’s interviewees, a civil servant in his 40s, told Høydal that he had asked for help several times and tried multiple therapies, to no avail: “I work hard to understand how I can control myself and stay away from this….I don’t want to contribute to this industry.” Other interviewees also expressed a wish to “become normal again.” While pedophilia is an illness with no known cure, therapy can prove useful in dissuading pedophiles from acting on their impulses, when it is estimated that 30 to 80% of viewers of child abuse material may one day abuse children themselves. To this end, Germany has launched Project Dunkelfeld. The project’s website, “Don’t offend,” provides information on free, confidential therapy for people who “like children in ways they shouldn’t.” However, such a system is only possible in countries, like Germany, that have no mandatory reporting laws.
Could the solution be to add mandatory, court-ordered therapy to the penalization of CAM downloading? Non-offender pedophiles left to their own devices are not unlikely to abuse children one day, and it is our duty to think of ways to prevent such an outcome, even if it means putting our feelings of hate and disgust aside.
The prevalence of pedophilia is estimated to be 4 to 5%. Statistically, this means that for every 20 to 25 people you see walking on the street, one could be a pedophile. Pedophilia is not an abstract concept, far removed from our pristine lives. It is a masterfully concealed perversion, an illness that has always existed and always will, in every country and every city, unbeknown to most of us. And in a world where 40% of people have Internet access, watching children be violently abused has never been easier.
To counter the rise of Internet CAM, lawmakers, police, corporations, and the public must come together. “Unless we want to fall behind, it’s time for politicians and law enforcement officials to embrace this, and focus on developing more effective tooling, techniques and approaches to future digital crime,” says Einar Stangvik. Through a combination of legislation, funding, proactive work by major tech players and ISPs, and public awareness, the spread of CAM can be slowed. Children who are suffering as you read this can be rescued. In Norway, VG certainly plans on persevering. “Serious commitment to dealing with this problem is sorely required, and I feel that we’ve come too far to just let go,” says Stangvik. “So we won’t.”
Marie Baleo is a French writer and co-founder of a small online magazine, Nott Magazine.