Software Helps Police Shut Down Child Pornography Ring

"This is going to raise the awareness level of what's going on. Normally, it's hard to keep this problem on the radar screen. People find it hard to talk about"

by / March 15, 2006
Today's announcement by U.S. Attorney Alberto Gonzales that a chat room providing live video streams of child molestation had been shut down, brought a sense of satisfaction to Toronto Detective Sergeant Paul Gillespie. "This is tremendous," he said, as he watched Gonzales announce on live television that Justice Department, Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials had charged 27 people with online child pornography offenses.

Gillespie was in Tysons Corner, Va., attending the Microsoft Government Leaders Forum, to speak about his experience tracking child pornographers on the Internet when the news broke. A key tool used by the U.S., Canadian and other international police agencies to track and find the criminals was developed by Gillespie and his team from the Child Exploitation Section of Toronto Police Sex Crime Unit.

The Child Exploitation Tracking System (CETS) allows police to collaborate and share information on potential child pornography and child abuse as it happens online. It can track online molesters and provide links that might not be apparent. "It identifies non-obvious relationships," said Gillespie, who watched the television monitor with elation as Attorney General Gonzales announced that two Web sites, "Kiddypics" and "Kiddyvids" had been shut down.

Using CETS, Toronto's police infiltrated the online pornography ring and carried out an undercover sting operation that tracked the suspects' activities for months, gathering evidence that led to the arrests announced today in Washington, D.C.

"This is going to raise the awareness level of what's going on," Gillespie said. "Normally, it's hard to keep this problem on the radar screen. People find it hard to talk about," he said.

According to Gonzales, some of the victims were as young as 18 months.

Besides 13 defendants charged in the U.S., another 14 were charged in Canada, Australia and Great Britain.

The FBI has a seen a 2,000 percent increase in the number of child pornography images on the Internet since 1996, according to CNN. Canadian police estimate there are more than 100,000 Web sites that contain images of child sex abuse. Approximately 95 percent of victims are abused by someone they know: a relative or a neighbor.

According the Gillespie, online traffickers of child pornography have become extremely sophisticated in using technology to create, share, sell and distribute images and videos of child molestation and abuse. Three years ago, in an act of desperation, Gillespie sent Bill Gates, Microsoft's founder and chief software architect, an e-mail asking for help in finding software tools that would aid the police in tracking and identifying online child molesters.

Gates passed the message on to Microsoft Canada, which contacted Gillespie in 2003 and began a partnership to develop a software solution. Three years and $4 million later (funds donated by Microsoft), CETS has taken off, according to Gillespie, and is now used by 27 different law enforcement agencies around the globe, including Brazil, Italy and Indonesia, as well as Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia.

With today's announcement that 27 had been charged with trading child pornography online, Gillespie sensed that the years of work on CETS was finally paying off. "It's very gratifying, he said.