BY DAN ROZEK
A major effort is under way in Illinois to fight child pornography, even as authorities say more people than ever are being prosecuted for such crimes, including a rash of high-profile cases such as the conviction of a former state police trooper who admitted he viewed kiddie porn on his state-issued laptop computer while on duty.
Technology has made it easier for people trafficking in child pornography to stay in the shadows. But it’s also aided investigators trying to combat the problem.
Now, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is aiming to tip the scales even further in investigators’ favor. Madigan plans to meet this week with a number of Internet companies to urge them to adopt a technology called PhotoDNA to aid child pornography investigations in Illinois.
Developed in 2009 by Microsoft Corp., which donated the technology to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, PhotoDNA makes it easier to track online child porn files and defeat the high-tech tactics that child pornographers increasingly have employed in an effort to remain out of authorities’ reach, says Ernie Allen, president of the Virginia-based center, which works with law enforcement agencies on child pornography crimes.
“This is an extraordinary tool,” said Allen, whose organization is asking Google and other major Internet companies to adopt the technology. Facebook already has.
PhotoDNA makes it possible to track the files, typically shared over the Internet, even if users change the sizes of the images or reformat them, which in the past have helped them avoid detection, said Allen.
Madigan’s new push for more companies to adopt the technology is the latest in a series of efforts aimed at attacking Internet child pornography.
“Illinois is really a leader in this effort,” Allen said of the effort led by the attorney general’s office, which runs a federally funded “Internet Crimes Against Children” task force that covers all Illinois counties except Cook. The Cook County task force is run by the county state’s attorney.
No one knows the precise extent of Internet child pornography. But nationwide more cases than ever are being prosecuted, with more people than ever being convicted and being hit with increasingly tough prison sentences, according to the Justice Department.
Allen points to figures showing that, in 1995, federal authorities prosecuted only about 50 people on child pornography charges throughout the entire country — the figure now is about 2,500 a year.
State officials say they don’t have statistics for Illinois but have seen — and are prosecuting — a growing number of cases.
“There’s no question there’s been an explosion of prosecutions and investigations, but I’m convinced we’re just scratching the surface,” said Allen.
There have been several cases in the Chicago area that have attracted attention in recent months.
In one such case, a Bartlett man was sentenced by a federal judge in Chicago last month to serve 40 years in prison for streaming video on the Internet that showed him sexually molesting an infant. Brian Annoreno, 35, broadcast the attacks in a private online chatroom, authorities said.
State’s attorneys say they’ve stepped up their efforts to fight child pornography over the past few years.
“It’s a crime that crosses all economic and social sectors of the community,” DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin said.
“The numbers are so big, they just turn your stomach,” said Mike Hood, an assistant attorney general who runs Madigan’s high-tech crimes unit. “The Internet has allowed this to explode — it has allowed all these people to connect.”
At one time, child pornography was virtually eradicated, but it’s gained new life in recent years as the Internet became available in virtually every home.
Efforts to stop the crime by policing commercial sites where the porn could be sold have largely succeeded, but that didn’t eradicate the problem.
Most Internet child porn now is traded or shared much like music or video files, often in private chatrooms, making it harder for investigators to uncover.
“It is now overwhelmingly a product of networks and file-sharing,” Allen said.
But advanced technology also is making it easier for investigators to track those trading and trafficking child porn. A decade ago, undercover investigators largely had to troll online in chatrooms, looking for someone to offer to trade or swap child porn, according to Hood and others. Now, when investigators locate online files containing child pornography, they tag them by their so-called “hash values” — a series of identifying digits, Hood said.
“Every file has a genetic fingerprint,” Hood said.
Investigators from Madigan’s office and other jurisdictions then can trace those files when they are downloaded, tracking them to a specific computer by its unique Internet protocol address.
Launching an intensive hunt for Internet viewers of child pornography last summer, Madigan’s investigators quickly found they had no shortage of targets.
Checking IP addresses, they discovered about 8,000 that were tapping the Internet to access child pornography — including graphic images showing sexual assaults of children and even infants.
“It’s disturbingly prevalent, and it just can’t be ignored,” said Madigan.
Working with local police, state investigators from Madigan’s office went after the “worst of the worst” offenders, those who trafficked heavily in the most violent, vicious child porn.
“These are truly the most horrendous, vile images,” she said, describing many of the pictures as “crime scene photos” documenting sexual attacks on children.
Once investigators identify an IP address that’s downloaded child porn, authorities can obtain search warrants for that computer and then file charges if pornography is found, Madigan said.
Since the “Operation Glass House” effort began, 22 people have been arrested statewide on child pornography charges — a crime that in Illinois can carry a 30-year prison term.
Even with stepped-up enforcement efforts, images of child pornography still abound in cyberspace.
Since 2003, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has used a computerized system to help review 53 million images — including 13 million last year alone, as part of its effort to help authorities identify children victimized in sexual attacks that are filmed or photographed. This year, it’s reviewing 300,000 images a week, according to Allen, the organization’s president. It’s a monumental task.
“The pictures of the kids stay out there forever,” Allen said.