Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi
Nine years ago, the Canadian police unit fighting child prostitution on the Internet was in despair. The task before them was Mission Impossible. Child abusers all over the globe were using servers and personal computers to distribute millions of pornographic images of children five to 14 years old in compromising positions. Videos of adults and children engaged in sex acts were being offered for sale. Too often, children, themselves, were also on offer.
The problems facing the police unit included weak laws, unfocused law agencies, non-existent cooperation between them, and no way to control and co-ordinate efforts globally.
In a moment of desperation, Paul Gillespie, the head of the unit, fired an email to Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, briefing him on the situation and asking for help. He never imagined the response. It was quick, strong and effective. Mr. Gates sent him an email the next day telling him that Microsoft would take control of the whole project, free of charge. The company’s Canadian manager called the same day to set up a meeting. His orders from Mr. Gates were simple: Give them whatever they need — and more!
Nine years later, Mr. Gillespie tells me, the project is global. Microsoft has connected participating police departments around the world with one network, one database. Investigators anywhere can tap into the system to find offenders, and co-ordinate with each other, and world police and Interpol, to catch and persecute child abusers.
Intelligent software stores investigation results, email addresses, chat histories, pictures and data of suspects and victims. It allows police officers to coordinate their efforts to find and exchange the personal information, movements, tactics, and whereabouts of offenders. A case can be investigated at the same time in Canada, UK, Australia and South Africa by universally trained officers following unified standards and working on the same online file.
To imagine the massive amount of stress on investigators, some facts and numbers may help. In the US alone, 24 million pictures and 78,000 videos of the sex abuse of children of an average age of five years old have been found.
Each picture and video must be analyzed and connected to similar ones in order to identify the source, explains Mr. Gillespie, now CEO of Kid Internet Safety Alliance, which is a non-governmental organization that trains police officers worldwide in FBI standards of investigation.
More investigation work is then needed to find the offender and prove his guilt. For example, it was found that millions of pictures came originally from the server of a Houston collector/seller. He traded images around the globe, using a sophisticated network.
Investigators look first for the abused children. To find the abusers, they analyze picture by picture, and look for marks, such as unique backgrounds, tattoos or watches. Since most cases involves a male in the child’s life, detectives look for relatives, neighbors and friends who carry these identifications.
To their shock, they found that many of these children, boys and girls, were abused by their own father, for fun and/or for trade. Too often, children themselves were offered for rent, exchange or sale.
To find the offenders is one thing, to take care of the victims is another. The problem is that laws and medical services are weak in most countries. After a few months or years in prison, offenders are out engaging in the same activity. Children are poorly protected and many of them return voluntarily to the same trade.
So far, it is believed, there are from three to five million original pictures involving 100,000 to 150,000 children. However only 3,000 children have been identified.
“After we find out who and where, we contact the police in the offender’s country of residence. We, then, go and arrest offenders, remove the abused from their custody, and provide them with treatment, shelter and help. Some cases defy normal treatment. In poor countries, this can be quite a challenge. Even in wealthy countries like Canada, providing enough care and followup is not a priority for government agencies,” says Mr. Gillespie.
“The same can be said about the offenders. While some may need psychological help, most have more serious problems. No government is ready to provide treatment for offenders and observe them after they leave jail. We have to check on them ourselves. However, this becomes more and more difficult, because they get smarter and harder to catch,” he explains.
The fight continues, and Mr. Gillespie and Microsoft with the help and support of law agencies, companies and donors are doing their best to achieve the possible in a difficult mission.
They need our support and prayers. If we only had more people like Bill Gates among us, the world would be a much better place.