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Law Enforcement Tools For Catching Child Predators

Patricia Murphy

Right now in the state of Washington it's legal to view child pornography online. In order to face prosecution explicit images must be printed or downloaded. So for the third year in a row State Attorney General Rob McKenna is lobbying the legislature to expand the laws to give prosecutors more leeway. Among other things, McKenna's proposal would make simply viewing child porn a crime. Historically the bill has had trouble in part because of legislators concerns that someone could be charged for accidentally downloading or viewing images. This frustrates digital forensics experts who work in law enforcement. They say it's not that hard to tell the difference between the two.


The market for child pornography is growing. Michelle Collins from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says the seeming anonymity of the internet has given pedophiles and predators a place to explore.

Collins: "Fifteen years ago if somebody had some kind of sexual interest in children they would have to look hard and long to find this type of material basically risking exposure."

The Center estimates that 20 percent of all pornography on the Internet involves children. And often they're being victimized by someone close to them.

Collins: "More than 40 percent of the time of the children who've been identified in these photos and videos it was a parent or a step parent who was sexually abusing them and filming them."

Detective Tim Luckie is a computer forensics expert with the Seattle Police Department's Internet Crimes Against Children task force. Luckie says it's is not uncommon to uncover hundreds and often times thousands of explicit images from the hard drives of those who have a predilection for child pornography.

Luckie: "See these are deleted files."

From an office under the state crime lab in Seattle Luckie and his colleagues investigate hundreds of tips that originate from places like AOL or Yahoo. Boxes of evidence lined walls. Mercifully it's all in manila envelopes.

When there's an arrest a suspect's computer comes here where Luckie starts by making a copy of the hard drive. He recovers anything that prosecutors can use for their case.

Luckie: "This is an actual case I'm working on so if you see something offensive it's not going to be child porn but it may be adult porn so caution caution."

Murphy: "Are you shielding me from the child porn?"

Luckie: "Yeah, I'm trying to keep that from happening. Nothing worse than seeing that, even by accident."

Often a prosecutors case is built on items that suspects thought were long gone. Things like emails , instant messages, deleted photos and videos.

Luckie: "What we get to see is what you deleted. What you got rid of what you put in your recycler and emptied we get to see all that. The graphic user interface that you're using windows is just saying it's gone. So you don't clutter your screen with a bunch of deleted files. We clutter our screen with your deleted files."

Luckie says most of their arrests are people that upload child pornography to particular posting sites over the Internet. And because the internet works just like the mail investigators can follow an IP, or Internet protocol address, to whomever uploaded it. But there are other tools as well, ones that Detective Luckie is reluctant to talk too much about.

Luckie: "If I tell you how we do that they they go ah and they make changes to how they respond or how they do business and then we have to make changes to their changes. Right now it's working just fine, I don't want to tell anybody how to get around us. "

There are undercover operations, both in person and on the Internet. They have a presence on MySpace, Facebook and frequent darker chat rooms where pedophiles hang out to trade.

Then there's Operation Fairplay. It was developed by the Wyoming attorney general's office in 2003. It uses a photo's so–called digital fingerprint to help law enforcement identify suspects who are using peer–to–peer networks to transmit, receive, and share their stash.

Basically it works like this. Every digital image has an unique electronic fingerprint. Once investigators see the image they can capture and catalog it. From there they can witness real time transfers of known child pornography occurring around the world.

But in Washington state without a download or a printout technically there's no crime. Right now Detective Luckie say his biggest frustration is low sentencing guidelines. He says even if a suspects has thousands of images he can only be charged with one count. Without a prior felony, which is usually the case, that adds up to about a year in jail.

Luckie: "I done search warrants on a guy when I've seized his computers they already had evidence stickers on them from a prior case. They'd already been arrested on spent time on then got out and got their computers back and now here we are again for the same crime arresting him and now we have these evidence stickers on it."

Luckie says fresh material surfaces monthly and it's difficult for him to see the same victims over and over. He's even watched some mature through videos of their abuse.

Luckie has been doing this job for a long time. He acknowledges that it's not for everyone, sometimes coworkers move on because it's too emotionally difficult.

Luckie says he stays dedicated to his mission because the purveyors and users of child pornography are so dedicated to theirs. Sometimes it keeps him up at night.

But it's not the images that haunt him. It's the details.

Luckie: "Because the fear of missing something and a guy getting away that would weigh on me that would bother me. A mistake that I made that would let somebody go free that's hurt a child that would be devastating so I do everything I can not to be that guy."

Meantime State Attorney General Rob McKenna and supporters of his bill to expand the laws around child pornography are in last minute negations with a house committee. If the bill isn't voted out by today it will be dead for the session.

I'm Patricia Murphy, KUOW News.

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