Interpol Secretary General Ronald K. Noble yesterday announced the creation of Project Guardian, a specialist taskforce to tackle a new threat posed to children via the Internet.

Addressing the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children Conference in Paris, Noble revealed that through its support of online child abuse investigations, Interpol had identified a disturbing new trend of criminals using "modeling" sites to gain access to children.

The sites serve as a front enabling pedophiles to contact the site owners to gain direct physical access to the "models," and also buy abuse images.

"This trend requires the urgent attention of law enforcement, but the significant investigative resources required are simply not available in most national police forces, which is why Interpol is launching Project Guardian," said Noble.

"The officers dedicated to this taskforce will also investigate emerging evidence of the involvement of organized crime behind many of these sites, which result in the sexual exploitation of children on a daily basis."

In attendance was First Lady Laura Bush. While speaking at the conference she presented a story of international collaboration between Danish, Canadian and American law enforcement officers.

"In Denmark, a law enforcement officer discovered images online of this little girl being abused, and he reported them to Interpol. Within days, the images were recognized by the Toronto police service, which worked with American officials to decipher clues about the little girl's identity. The FBI examined pictures taken of the girl in her Scout uniform, traced the troop number in the photos, and followed the images to North Carolina. There they found the little girl, and the relative who had abused her, and he is now serving a 100-year sentence."

Project Guardian will be integrated into one of Interpol's planned global anti-crime centers, focusing on the fight against trafficking in human beings and child abuse. Using Interpol's Child Abuse Image Database (ICAID) and its specialist recognition software, investigators are able to connect images from the same series of abuse, or those taken in the same location with different victims. To date, ICAID has assisted in the identification and rescue of more than 500 victims around the world.

"While the digital age presents new opportunities, it also poses new threats to young people," said Bush. "The Internet allows predators to make contact with unsuspecting children. It means the exploitation of children in one country can devastate families half a world away."

Gina M. Scott  |  Writer