Senators OK $1 billion for online child porn fight

Bill, which awaits floor vote, would encourage investigators to comb peer-to-peer networks for illegal images and would rewrite laws to ban Webcasts depicting child abuse.

A U.S. Senate panel has unanimously approved a bill that would encourage federal, state, and local police to use and create special software designed to nab child pornography swappers on peer-to-peer file-sharing networks.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted to send an amended version of the Combating Child Exploitation Act, chiefly sponsored by Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), to the full slate of politicians for a vote.

All told, the bill would allocate more than $1 billion over the next eight years for a broad array of efforts aimed at tackling Internet crimes against children. It calls for hiring 250 new federal agents at the FBI, the Immigrations and Custom Enforcement Agency, and the U.S. Postal Service dedicated to child exploitation cases; for beefing up personnel, equipment, and educational programs designed to combat Internet crimes against children; and for creating new forensics laboratories if the attorney general deems it necessary to deal with a "backlog" of online child exploitation cases.

"We need to give law enforcement the funds and the tools to pull the plug on Internet predators," Biden said in a statement.

An amendment adopted Thursday also adds new sections to the original bill that would rewrite existing child pornography laws. One section is designed to make it clear that live Webcam broadcasts of child abuse are illegal, which the bill's authors argue is an "open question." Another change is aimed at closing another perceived loophole, prohibiting digital alteration of an innocent image of a child so that sexually explicit activity is instead depicted.

It's unclear whether the changes are necessary. The Justice Department in the past, for instance, has netted guilty pleas in cases related to live Webcam recordings involving minors engaged in sexual acts.

The bill's passage follows a hearing last month at which Biden and other senators suggested they saw considerable promise in software designed to detect child pornography sources--specifically a tool called "Operation Fairplay." The so-called "comprehensive computer infrastructure" was developed two years ago by Special Agent Flint Waters in the Wyoming Attorney General's Office, where the system is still housed, and is currently being used by online child exploitation investigators nationwide.

The bill approved Thursday allocates $2 million for the attorney general to build upon that software by creating a "National Internet Crimes Against Children Data System," which would make information about ongoing cases--particularly high-priority ones--accessible to investigators nationwide and coordinate development of new software tools designed to detect alleged child predators in real time.

Through the existing Fairplay system, investigators log onto peer-to-peer file-sharing networks as any other person would and search for files containing certain keywords that are likely to indicate child pornography is involved. Then they download files--frequently videos, sometimes as long as 20 to 30 minutes, with names like "children kiddy underage illegal.mpg" and much more obscene--to their own machines. The Fairplay software allows the investigator to obtain the IP address of the file's sender and, in some cases, display its geographic location in map form.

Once armed with an IP address and date and time of the download, investigators can subpoena the Internet service provider for more information, such as name and address of the subscriber who was assigned it at that moment. It's not clear whether any wiretaps are also conducted to monitor ongoing file-swapping.

Through that process, investigators have identified more than 600,000 unique computers allegedly trafficking in child pornography and traced them to the United States. But Biden and others have voiced dismay that they're only equipped with the resources to investigate about 2 percent of those potential cases.

 

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