Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Catching child abusers on the Net

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about catching people who abuse children and put photos of it on the Internet. In New Zealand, dozens of people are brought before the courts and charged with child porn offences every year. Often, they go to jail.

Read on for my speaking notes, or listen to the podcast.
Q: Now to your topic for the week – child abuse on the Internet. We had Mike Moran of Interpol on earlier this week, and on the weekend we saw some fairly lurid headlines on the front of the Sunday Star-Times this week about catching child abusers – what as that all about?

A: That was about the child porn team at the Department of Internal Affairs who were chasing down someone who had abused a New Zealand girl and taken pictures of himself doing it.

Q: Wasn’t the FBI involved?

A: Yes – law enforcement agencies around the world cooperate on this kind of thing, on Internet-related crime in general and on child abuse in particular.

Q: And they provided some kind of tip-off?

A: Well, I don’t know the facts of this particular case, but it wouldn’t be the first time. And that can go in the reverse direction as well. New Zealand sometimes tells other agencies when our enforcement agencies find things that look as though they belong to other countries.

Q: Who does the enforcement in New Zealand?

A: There’s the Police, of course, but a lot of it is done by a team at the Department of Internal Affairs. Their role is related to censorship compliance. About one New Zealander is being brought before the courts and charged with this every week.

Q: Child porn is illegal to own, isn’t it?

A: It certainly is, here and most places. Child porn is a record of child abuse, after all. The way the New Zealand law works is through something called the Films, Videos and Classifications Publication Act. That act defines the term “objectionable” – the definition covers child porn, anything to do with rape, and a few other pretty extreme areas that most people find repulsive. And owning, or passing on, objectionable material is illegal. You can go to jail for it. People do, sometimes.

Q: What about ordinary pornography – if there’s such a thing!

A: If it’s not objectionable under the act, then it’s not unconditionally illegal to own. There’s no definition of pornography in New Zealand law as far as I’m aware, just the one about “objectionable material”. There may be legal restrictions on selling Playboy to minors; I haven’t checked, but on the whole the law is focused on the outright banning of objectionable material. It’s not an offence as far as I’m aware to own or sell pornography which is not objectionable – we’d have to lock up half the dairy owners in the country otherwise!

Q: And Internet providers!

A: There are some interesting points there. Of course, there is pornography on the Internet – no-one can deny that. For a long time, for instance, there was a site called which was a porn site – much to the embarrassment of the US administration which uses

Q: What did George Bush and co think of that?

A: It was mainly active during the Clinton era Whitehouse…

Anyway, Internet Service Providers are not generally held accountable for the actions of their customers. It would be very hard to do that since ISPs have almost no control over what people do on the Internet. People used to use something called Usenet newsgroups – they have rather fallen out of favour these days, but they used to be the way lots of people exchanged things in the Internet. Newsgroups were like bulletin boards where you could pin up a notice with your views on something, or post files like pictures or videos. And there were thousands of groups with names that indicated what they were all about. Nz.general was one for general discussion about New Zealand matters.

Q: Are these like Google Groups?

A: Google Groups are Usenet Newsgroups. Google took over an old archive of newsgroups called Dejanews and renamed it Google Groups. And Google has provided a way for people to post and to read other people’s postings. As I say, Usenet used to be very popular and it’s actually still out there, but these days most ISPs don’t provide a Usenet news feed and you have to get the groups through something like Google Groups. Or through a pay-for news server in the US. There may be open servers in New Zealand still, but I don’t use them and I don’t know them.

Q: So were these things full of pornography?

A: No, certainly not most of them, anyway. There are thousands and each is dedicated to a specific topic. But a few are pornographic, and a smaller number still have names that suggest they carry child porn. A few years ago, before most ISPs gave up carrying Usenet altogether, the DIA asked them politely if they would consider not carrying child porn newsgroups, and pointed out that ISPs might find themselves liable if they chose to keep carrying them. So there was a bit of pressure applied and it worked well.

Q: So how is child porn spread now?

A: Apparently there are pay-for websites with it. And through certain chat-rooms I would guess. It’s a problem, I would imagine, if you are someone who likes this stuff, to be certain that you are not playing into the hands of law enforcement when you go out on the Net looking for it. Most countries find child porn repellent and do their best to suppress it; that might involve posing as someone who likes it to see who sidles up to you, as it were.

Q: And that’s how people get caught?

A: One of the ways, I’m sure. I don’t know all their methods and I don’t expect they would tell. Also pay-for web sites contain a list of credit card numbers, that’s easy to trace if site itself gets raided. As Mike Moran of Interpol was saying – this is a problem in many countries in the world, including unfortunately New Zealand – but the enforcement people here are extremely active. I really want to stress that – I’m going over the technology very lightly here, but the enforcement officials work full time every day – even on public holidays – and they have some great technical skills. And they are sick to the stomach of this kind of thing, just as I am. If someone listening is into this kind of stuff, all I can say to you is: get help before you get arrested and jailed. It’s as simple as that.

Q: Do you think child porn will ever become legal?

A: I can’t imagine so. That’s an argument that’s used by proponents of sex with children – they say, this is just another frontier, a hundred years ago women couldn’t vote – now look at them, homosexuality used to be illegal and now that’s widely accepted, and we, they say, are the next group. We’ll be legal soon.

Q: But you don’t buy that

A: Not at all. I take the view that anything involving consenting adults is their business not mine, but children are not competent to make decisions like this. That’s pretty much our law on most things – kids aren’t deemed competent to do or decide a whole raft of things like driving, working for a living, or voting. Increasing the rights of children of has been a trend over the last century or so and to me, legalizing adults’ ability to rape them would be a huge step back against that trend. I agree with the Department of Internal Affairs people who say that every child porn image is a record of a crime against a child.

Q: How do they trace the children from the images of abuse?

A: Hard work, mainly. The DIA people go through images looking for backgrounds, anything that gives a clue to a location. Apparently they get a feel for different countries. One they are prosecuting at the moment had some obvious South Island scenery I believe. But that brings us to another really grubby side of the whole thing – people who collect these kind of images collect a lot of them. And some has to go through their collection to see if there’s any recognizable children or locations so they can rescue the kids. It’s heartbreaking stuff, something I’m glad I don’t have to do.

Q: Wasn’t there a child abuser on TV recently who had tried to hide his face but got caught anyway?

A: Yes, there certainly was. Some had a made a record of himself abusing kids and published the picture, and to avoid getting caught he’d used Photoshop to swirl his face, so that it looked like a blurred spiral instead of a face. And a cop, in Germany, as Mick Moran told us on Tuesday, spent a long time figuring out how to reconstruct his face from that image.

Q: How would you do that?

A: You’d have to find the exact pixel that the swirl was centred on, and you’d have to then apply exactly the right amount of opposite swirl. I can only think that it would have taken somone days of frustrating trial and error. Anyway, they did unswirl the picture and publish it on TV, and sure enough someone recognized the guy in the photo and he was tracked down to Thailand, and hauled off back to Europe for trial.

Q: Does the Internet attract people like this?

A: Presumably it does. Not being a psychologist, I can’t say what goes on in the mind of someone like this, but you could imagine that it might be a fairly lonely life knowing that people find your tastes disgusting, and the Internet might provide an opportunity to meet others like you. And associating with like-minded people might tend to legitimize their tastes in their own minds, so to that extent the Internet probably helps them. On the other hand, the Internet offers a lot of possibility for catching these people and rescuing the kids, so it’s not all bad. As Mick Moran said, the Internet is neutral – its people who are good and bad. The Net holds up a mirror to us as people.


As always, you can discuss this broadcast at

DIA’s page about keeping your children safe and a list of recent prosecutions.

Sunday Star-Times story about a paedophile caught online.

posted by colin at 11:50 am  

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress