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Britain cracks down on child porn online

In the biggest international operation against Internet pedophiles, police forces across England and Wales have identified 12 suspects in the U.K.

By Wendy McAuliffe

LONDON--Police forces across England and Wales have taken part in the biggest international operation against Internet pedophiles.

The investigation, dubbed Operation Landmark, has successfully identified 12 suspected pedophiles in the United Kingdom. At 10 p.m. PST Tuesday, the National Crime Squad (NCS) coordinated dawn raids on the 12 British targets; computers and software were seized as evidence.

The NCS confirmed that it will use sophisticated face-mapping software to identify the children depicted in 60,000 pornographic images obtained through the raids. A source close to the international investigation said the new software is designed to help trace the whereabouts of the victims and their abusers.

Detective Superintendent Peter Spindler, leading the investigation for the NCS, said, "This operation has sadly and distressingly brought thousands of new images of abuse to our attention. These young victims need to be identified and protected as quickly as possible."

Information technology company Serco Group was commissioned to develop the face-recognition software for the NCS following Operation Cathedral--an international operation that led to the arrest and imprisonment of the world's largest Internet pedophile ring, the Wonderland Club. All information gathered using the new software will be entered into an international police database.

"We hope that the database can be used to identify children who are being systematically abused for the gratification of a small but dangerous section of society," Spindler said.

A combination of existing software has been used to develop the face-mapping tool and has been designed according to the NCS and Interpol specifications.

"Until now, most of the face-recognition that has been done on file images has only worked if the picture is exact," a source said. "A number of police databases already contain hashes of known pedophile images, but the moment the picture becomes cropped, it no longer works."

The new software will allow officers at the NCS and the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) to identify abused children who may look slightly different from one picture to another. It will also provide intelligence on the background in the photos, which could be used to determine the room in which the photos were taken and then linked to the abuser or photographer.

"This is an experimental exercise--I'm not sure how effective the software is," the source said.

A group effort
The latest police raids were carried out in 19 countries during the night. Throughout the four continents involved, 130 search warrants were executed.

Over the past 12 months, more than 30 newsgroups known to regularly host indecent images of children were closely monitored by international police forces.

Speaking on Radio 4's Today program, Spindler said Demon Internet, a British Internet service provider, was asked to monitor its servers on a particular day. The data collected revealed that 10,000 people accessed the offending newsgroups that day. This figure was narrowed to 2,800 people who visited the groups at least 10 times, and finally 130 targets were identified for showing evidence of committing criminal offences online.

"With the assistance of Demon Internet and the support and guidance of the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit, we are able to show that those accessing these newsgroups did so regularly and with purpose," said Spindler.

"We also learned, not surprisingly, that those abusing the Internet have learned from recent police successes how best to protect their true identities."

The NCS distributed the intelligence to the relevant police forces across the United Kingdom, and ISPs were approached for the Internet account details of the 12 British suspects.

Staff writer Wendy McAuliffe reported from London.