Software helps find online predators

Sharna Johnson

It’s not the casual downloader they are targeting, or even the occasional person who blunders into dangerous territory on a peer-to-peer network. Instead they are hunting those who intentionally seek and collect or share child pornography.

Using specially designed software based on geographical location, quantity and frequency, among other factors, they target users sharing and downloading child pornography. Local police are playing on the same technological field as the perpetrators, trying to weed out crimes against children in Curry and Roosevelt counties.

“The Internet’s one of the most powerful tools that a child predator has,” said Curry County Sheriff’s Investigator Sandy Loomis.

And it’s a tool law enforcement is harnessing as well in an effort to stop the risk to children and weed out local child predators.

There are numerous file sharing applications and networks on the web, but Limewire is probably the most popular and commonly used by people swapping anything from music to movies, photos, programs and other digital files.

Users on the network can search for, select and download files from other users, while at the same time making their own files available for download.

Much of the use is legitimate. But there is an underbelly to the networks where some users trade in child pornography, Loomis said.

While file sharing networks have disclaimers and user agreements prohibiting such things, Loomis said they often aren’t enforced, leaving it to law enforcement to root out illegal activity.

Using software that scours the networks and identifies child pornography being downloaded or shared by users in the area, investigators start looking for patterns.

Large amounts of child pornography downloaded and shared or frequent or reoccurring exchanges by the same person are things that will kick off a full blown investigation.

Loomis declined to say how the software identifies child pornography and those who possess it.

Loomis supervises Curry County’s Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) unit. It’s about three years old and has a two-pronged goal of addressing child solicitation and exploitation, according to Undersheriff Wesley Waller.

About a year and a half ago, the Roosevelt County Sheriff’s Office created a counterpart ICAC unit that closely partners with Curry County and has made Internet child pornography its initial focus as it grows, said Undersheriff Malin Parker.

To date, Curry County has put together more than 40 cases in both solicitation — where suspects have explicit chats with undercover officers and make efforts to meet with them for sexual purposes — and child pornography.

Roosevelt County has filed charges in eight child pornography cases, with more than 30 subpoenas and search warrants either served or ongoing, said Timothy Morrison, a specially commissioned deputy assigned to run the unit.

Loomis said officers are focused on specific activity. Someone just using a network to download music or even someone who inadvertently downloads a single child pornography file and deletes it when they realize, is not going to be monitored, he said.

Adult pornography is legal. It is rampant and easy to stumble into on the Internet.

Child pornography, however, is illegal and is not as accessible. Those seeking and trading in it typically have to use very specific, “perverse” key word searches to find it, Morrison said — a factor that makes it less likely someone has downloaded it by accident, especially if they turn around and share it.

“You’re pretty much not going to run into child pornography unless you’re looking for it,” Morrison said.

If a user stumbles into child pornography by accident, Morrison said, the best thing to do is delete it immediately.

While law enforcement does want to encourage people to call police any time a child is solicited online, reporting an accidental download of child pornography isn’t necessary because there really isn’t much they can do, Loomis said.

The actions a user takes with the file, he said, will give law enforcement a clear picture of what their intent was.

Loomis said officers use forensic data to determine intent.

Things such as what was being searched for, how often and how many times a file was opened, if it was renamed, or moved from one file to another on a computer or to an external storage device like a thumb drive or hard drive — all become part of mapping the history of the file and show that a user knowingly possessed and accessed a file with intent and purpose, he said.

“If you move it to a hard drive or if you put it on a disc or a flash drive, that’s not an accident,” Loomis said.

While investigators, “see enough (cases) to keep us busy,” Loomis said, “I don’t think it’s any more prevalent here than it is anywhere else in the nation.”

Waller said there are 61 coordinated task forces comprised of federal, state and local agencies using software and investigative technology to detect the trading of child pornography. Internet service providers are charged by law to report child pornography found on their networks.

“There’s a network of law enforcement agents specifically set up for these types of crimes, just as we are,” Waller said, explaining the Curry County Sheriff’s Office also assists other regional agencies in investigating Internet crimes.

And that expertise is a boon to rural communities, Parker said.

“I don’t think that (Internet predators) realize that here in small-town America we have the technology and the personnel to be able to catch them,” Parker said.

“We will pursue this as long as it’s a problem. It’s something that ranks very high on our scale of things to go after (and) it’s something that we’re going to continue to pursue until technology figures out a way to be able to beat it.”