Inside the U.S. Fight Against Online Child Porn

Computer screen with XXX - X Rated tape and child, ICE and Homeland Security logo
CBS / iStock Photo
A federal law enforcement effort aimed at child sex exploitation is stepping up a strategy that targets online conspiracies. A top investigator says the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency's "Operation Predator" is "casting a wider net" for people who use the Internet to share their common interest in child pornography and abuse.

Supervisory Special Agent Matthew K. Dunn told CBS News the strategy is "looking at those individuals working together to commonly promote the advertisement, production and distribution of child abuse material and target them as groups." Dunn says group members often know each other only "virtually" on the worldwide web. Agents can take advantage of that anonymity to infiltrate the networks.

A five and a half year veteran of the operation, Dunn said the conspiracy investigations are important because they can expose threats that go far beyond the specter of men looking at pornography.

Sharing evidence of those potential dangers, Dunn showed CBS News a link to an online bulletin board displaying the results of a bizarre poll question of porn network members: "Have you thought about whether or not you would abduct a pre-teen girl or boy?" Agents monitoring the site watched as six of the estimated thirty people involved in the exchange admitted they would abduct a child.

The case led to arrests. It was a spin-off from a 2009 Pittsburgh-based investigation that resulted in what the Justice Department described as "the first prosecution of a child exploitation enterprise utilizing a social networking site" under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.

Dunn said the online networks "potentially create a more dangerous environment because you have individuals who can trade ideas." Despite the alarming online conversations, Dunn noted it was impossible to say if the participants were ready to act on their ideas.

Last week state, federal and local officers arrested 18 people in Rhode Island following what was described as a lengthy investigation into an online child pornography and exploitation case. In a recent Florida case, ICE reported the arrests of fifteen men who responded to online ads posted by undercover agents operating a website sting that claimed to offer access to minors. U.S.-hosted child porn sites have world-wide followers while sites in other countries have many U.S. clients.

"Operation Predator" has resulted in an estimated 12,800 arrests since it started in 2003. It goes after people who exploit children. It focuses on the production and distribution of child pornography. It also targets U.S. citizens who travel to foreign countries to engage in sex with minors. The effort has led to the deportation of foreign nationals convicted of child sexual exploitation in the U.S.

(CBS/Peter Maer)
Agent Dunn leads a team of 50 ICE agents who work at computer screens inside a non-descript office building in a Washington, D.C. suburb (at left). Along with other agents nationwide, they run "reactive and proactive" investigations.

ICE and other federal and state agencies often receive tips from other offenders to discuss groups and web sites they've joined. Information is also gathered from other informants, internet service providers and hotlines. Foreign police agencies also supply a flow of cases.

Dunn said beyond their shared interest in exploiting minors, suspects have only one common trait. The overwhelming majority are men. When suspects caught, they often attempt to downplay their crimes.

Dunn described their efforts to "minimize their activity as much as possible...minimize their sexual interest in children as much as possible." The agent says suspects know their activities are illegal and "from a societal perspective this kind of criminal activity is at the bottom." He has seen suspects offer their own justifications for their crimes.

Investigators say while tactics of child porn peddlers have not changed, the Internet has provided wider accessibility and boldness. The Web's infinite scope adds to the challenge facing investigators. ICE recently warned that "child pornography has exploded as Internet use has become more commonplace." Investigators have noted a disturbing trend as, "the images increasingly seem to feature younger children..."

Dunn said the federal effort itself "provides some level of deterrence" by putting defenders on notice about the constant threat of detection. But he admitted it is a "difficult battle" as agents confront "very disturbing material."

He said counseling is available for agents involved in emotionally trying cases. He believes the best consolation comes from investigations that lead to the rescue of young victims. The veteran agent advises parents to be aware of their children's access to computers and the internet. He suggested the use of software to limit access to webcams and certain sites.

ICE maintains a toll-free hotline for the public to report suspected child sex crimes at 1-866-347-2423.


Peter Maer is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can his posts in CBSNews.com's Political Hotsheet blog here. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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