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Ten. CC Luigi Mancuso

International child pornography investigation. Cases study


There are many documents describing the phenomenon of child-pornography, and it’s not easy to understand and to answer to some easy questions, compulsory for a telecom-investigator: what is exactly the “conflictual area1”? who are the actors moving on the scene? Which are their objectives?
To answer the first question is quite useful to borrow a term from the fantascientific literature used in the ‘80s: the concept of “cyberspace1” that well explains Internet characteristics: delocalized and immaterial. The “net” is an international reality or even better a “global” reality, if we want to use a very abused word.  So it becomes absolutely unlikely to do any evaluation about the fight to the criminal phenomenon on an international plan. Using the net, in fact, it is possible to spread a lot of illegal material anonymously and in a very short time, so a criminal action absolutely irrelevant until a few years ago, has grown and now is perfectly organized.
Because that Internet is the veicule and the value added to child pornography spreading, it is necessary to solve the second part of the problem: who are the actors moving on this scene with different roles? The media over exposition of this subject doesn’t contribute to the clarification of this aspect, often taken back to the wildest or grotesque features (ogres, monsters…).
If we want to set some conceptual limits to this subject, it is necessary to use a precise criterion to establish different analytical levels, useful for the comprehension and the explanation of the phenomenon. If we distinguish on the basis of economical profit, there are two great groups.
In the first group we can insert the people whose purpose is just economical. It would be the people who want to earn money from the sexual exploitation of children. Internet is swarming with many commercial web sites where the registered users can download child pornographic pictures and videos.
The second group is instead composed of people who wants sexual satisfaction. They don’t look for any kind of profit. This is the darkest side of the web, based on the creation of real virtual community ready to use the most sophisticated devices to remain anonymous and to continue the exchange of illegal material.
These groups can interact sometimes, but it is not so common and it doesn’t happen following codified procedures.
The cases study described below, taken from real episodes followed by Nucleo Operativo dei Carabinieri di Roma, can clarify the explanation above, and they can give  a precious contribute to outline a strategic procedure to contrast the spreading of child pornography on Internet.


a. Case Study 1. “FALCON” INVESTIGATION. Italy -  U.S.A. Cooperation.
The investigation comes from the collaboration between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) and Italian Carabinieri. The investigative work, begun in the U.S. to hit the economical profit coming from the spreading of child pornographic material, led to the bielorussian company  RegPay Co. Ltd (having headquarters in the U.S.A., in France and in Spain), responsible of the management and of the profit of more than 50 web sites holding child pornography material, through a lot of satellite little companies.
Also the managers of the western  headquarters were found, the group dismantled and all the customers of the site were pursued all over the world.
For the Italian part of the investigation was requested the contribute of the Carabinieri. A crossed check of all the data concerning the analysis of electronical transactions made in Italy and of the IP log file of Internet connections with child pornographic sites was performed.
In conclusion, the investigative process has allowed to enquire on 96 people, towards whom were carried out many searchs, with positive results.
The payment were performed by an electronic credit society (e-billing), whose center was in United States. The child-pornographic material was accessible only after the payment of a subscription. Just to give an idea of the huge business volume produced by this “economic enterprise”, it’s enough to say that the subscription fee oscillated between 20 and 30 euro per month and each web-site had an average of 3000 subscribers. The photos and videos represented minors (whose age was between 11 and 16 years) in attitudes that, following the categories traced in a famous study of the University of Cork (Ireland), can be considered like "Erotic Posing" that is images that show naked (or partially dressed) minors  in explicitly provocative situations from the sexual point of view.
The web-sites under investigation were easy to reach because they were linked with a lot of other pornographic web-sites and because it was possible to find them through a normal search engine on Internet.
Concerning the users of this material, i.e. the subscribers, it goes here recalled a contrary element to that generally present in the average; in fact we don’t face the “usual above suspicion professionals”. The inquired people were distributed in several social layers and they did not denote particular abilities in the use of computer instruments.  None of them admitted to be a pedofile, neither has been found traces of contacts with other people with the same interests.  Omitting the more improbable and fantastic excuses (hackers that have taken the control of their computer...), the more frequent justification that the these people supplied, was that it was an occasional curiosity, grown during assiduous Internet navigations on pornographic web-site.

b. Case Study 2 – “TWINS” INVESTIGATION. Italy – Europol Cooperation.
Surveying has been carried out by the cooperation and the coordination of the Office of European Police and has involved seven States of the European Union, between which Italy.  This work was aimed to contrast the production and the exchange of computer child-pornography that happened between pedofiles connected in a world-wide net and communicating each other through a BBS system.  This term is the acronym of the English expression Bulletin Board of System and it is communication system that can be compared to a sort of electronic "showcase" where every customer can leave messages and other customers can answer to him or add some considerations.  The system of the BBS is very diffused among the computer pedofiles because it guarantees the anonymity and the security of conversations.  And in fact, being the BBS an instrument managed also technically from the same group that has created, it turns out extremely difficult to obtain data about its customers which do not know each other physically but virtually, neither it can obtain information on the other members.  This simple outline can be implemented under the profile of the security in a lot of different way, as the access with password, the use of proxy server, the adoption of cryptography systems, steganography and so on. In addition, the BBS are neither linked to other web-sites, nor indexed in the classic search engines on Internet.
We should note that the activity of analysis carried out from Europol, on the base of data coming from the Countries members, has allowed to trace a meaningful profile of the pedofiles that operate in the "virtual communities" of Internet.  The use of the term "community" is surely appropriated to describe the BBS, sophisticated and not so famous communication system, necessarily stretch to connote its members as a closed group.  Such characteristics have made possible the aggregations of homogenous and strongly structured society of people devoted to child-pornography, although the nearly exclusive use of virtual contacts. This is a fundamental point since the possibility to giving life to the "group", meant in sociological sense as aggregation of individuals in order to satisfy both psychological and physiological needs, is an opportunity that for a pedofile is granted only in the virtual dimension of the "cyberspace".  If the conversations appeared on the BBS are analyzed with attention, it is obvious to recognize the features of a phenomenon known as "groupthink".  In social sciences, "groupthink" it comes considered typical of very closed and homogeneous groups and has some typical symptoms as:  illusion of invulnerability, conviction of the own rightness, stereotyped vision of the opposing field.  Several the messages appeared in the BBS are an obvious evidence in this sense. 
As an ulterior new evidence of that, the analysis of the present messages on the BBS shows that its members don’t just give indications on the modalities of exchange of the child-pornographic material.  On the contrary, there are numerous messages concerning security techniques (anonymous navigation, procedures to hide data, behavior to hold in case of searchs...), so that the BBS can be also viewed as a permanent forum on computer science security for the people devoted to child-pornography.  In this aspect it is shown a clearly different profile compared to the aforesaid child-pornographic subscribers, that is the consciousness of being pedofiles.

Also the exchanged material is adapted to such atmosphere.  The age of the minors is remarkably lowered until touching also, in some cases, children hardly an year old.  Also the kind of pornography is harder and shows, nearly always, scenes of explicit sexual actions and, sometimes, also of violence.  Being this a closed within, the material able to go around has to be new (cannot be sent the classic "series" that has been circulating on the net for various years).  This explains also because between the members of the BBS there are often also the “producers” of such a material.
However, we do not have to think to BBS members as a small group.  Since Internet has a planetary dimension, the BBS can contain also thousands of customers.  But this people, in order to take part of the group, must necessarily possess the following "requirement":  meaningful computer science abilities, acquaintance of the English language and ability to find new child-pornographic material.


Both these cases, even if different, have similarities. In fact, in a delocalized enviroment as the Internet virtual dimension, the crime we are speaking about has always an international development. The war against the widespreading of computer child-pornography shows an important challenge in the next future, that is to fill the gap between the technological “interdependence” level that has assumed the worldwide structure (spontaneous process) and the optimum “integration” level (both concerning laws and organization) that the international community has necessarily to reach.
Otherwise, it would be possible to guarantee impunity simply putting a web-site, or a BBS, or a newsgroup... in a foreign Country that doesn’t collaborate.  Obviously, this positioning would be only virtual since a web-site can be recorded in a Country and be technically managed from people in another State.
In conclusion, the aforementioned positive investigative experiences testify that the way to international cooperation among police enforcements is getting more and more important, even if there is a strong risk that these activities remain something temporary. So, in order to contribute to a wider and wider international perspective on this sector, we list the more critic elements, found during the investigative process, and towards whom should be focused the attention in the future:

  • a. Speed of information exchange. That is because the informations in Internet can change or be removed very often (for example, the storage of important data, as log files, has different rules all around Europe).
  • b. Possibility of utilization in the court of the evidences collected in another Country. The procedures and the laws  concerning computer data collection show often great differences among severalCountries and this fact can prevent other Countries from using those data;
  • c. Attitude to internationally think to investigation.

The police enforcements that fight against the child-pornography have to develop an operative praxis internationally oriented, using all the possible and available instruments (Europol, Interpol, connecting Officials in different countries,…) and communicating all the useful elements (images, nicknames, e-mail, …) in order not to omit any investigation, useful in this and in other Countries.