They thought they were chatting online with a 10-year-old girl in the Philippines. In truth, they were talking to an incredibly realistic-looking computer-generated child. Now that fake girl could help authorities identify very real child predators.
"Sweetie" is the creation of Dutch children's rights organization Terre des Hommes.
Over the course of a 2.5-month sting operation, the group says, Sweetie helped Terre des Hommes identify more than 1,000 adults from 71 countries willing to pay children in developing countries to perform sex acts before a Webcam. On Monday, it announced that it would hand over video footage of the interactions to international police organization Interpol.
Sweetie first interacted with the potential predators in public chat rooms. Researchers made sure to model their alter ego's online conversation, in style and tone, to that of a preteen Filipino girl.
"As soon as I go online, they come to me," Sweetie says in a short video documentary about Terre des Homme's campaign against Webcam child sex tourism. "Ten, hundred, every hour. So many. But what they don't know: I'm not real."
To show them she was, Terre de Homme researchers hunkered in an Amsterdam warehouse, turned on a Webcam, and using software, controlled the CG girl's conversation, facial expressions, and movements (made realistic through the use of motion capture technology). While the fake girl chatted with the real men, the activists tracked the potential criminals down not by hacking their computers, but by using information they volunteered -- Facebook and other social-media profiles, Skype handles, phone numbers, pictures, and video footage.
For the "Becoming Sweetie" project (PDF of detailed report), Terre de Homme paired with Avaaz.org, an activist group that campaigns on international issues from corruption to poverty to climate change.
Terre de Homme says Webcam sex with minors is a phenomenon that's proliferating fast as access to cheap Internet in developing countries grows. The practice, it says, generally involves men from wealthy Western countries paying children from poor countries for online sex shows.
"These children are usually forced to do this by adults or by extreme poverty," Hans Guyt, director of campaigns at Terre des Hommes Netherlands, said in a statement. "Sometimes they have to testify against their own family, which is almost an impossible thing to do for a child."
At any given moment, there are 750,000 child predators connected to the Internet, according to the United Nations and the FBI.
The adults identified in the Sweetie sting mostly come from the United States, Britain, and India. While Terre des Hommes plans to give authorities contact information for 1,000 adults who showed willingness to pay for a child's Webcam sex acts, the organization says more than 20,000 people attempted to chat with Sweetie over the course of the 10-week investigation.
In a demonstration for the Associated Press, a Terre de Homme researcher logged in to a chat room and identified himself as a 10-year-old girl from the Philippines. Multiple chat windows popped up immediately. A sample interaction:
Sweetie: "What you want see?"
Sweetie: "What u pay for?"
Sweetie and her chat partner agreed on a $20 fee to be paid by a wire transfer and Sweetie asked for the person's Skype address, but didn't take the chat any further, according to the AP. No payments were made or received during the Sweetie project, Terre de Homme says.
"We want governments to adopt proactive investigation policies that give law enforcement agencies the mandate to actively patrol public Internet hot spots where this child abuse is taking place every day," Guyt said. "The child predators doing this now feel that the law doesn't apply to them. The Internet is free, but not lawless."