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Part 1. The Site: A Place for Traffickers of Child and Revenge Pornography to Hide in Plain Sight
The online trafficking of child and revenge pornography is a tangled problem, further twisted by peer-to-peer (P2P) content-sharing sites, which allow traffickers to trade photos and videos without housing them. The issue is compounded by the global nature of the internet: a user in Texas could be trading photos of a child in Italy on a site hosted in Ireland. The problem is so untameable, in fact, that users trading child and revenge pornography on one photo-sharing site are hardly taking measures to hide. In this three-part series, Glammonitor investigates a site that has been linked to multiple arrests for the trafficking of child and revenge pornography around the U.S., and continues to be the apparent host for many traffickers worldwide.
In this series, we talk to the experts about their the efforts to curb the trafficking. And we talk to the victims, who are oftentimes forced to relive their abuses through the trading of photos. And lastly, we track down and talk to the perpetrators, some of whom deny their involvement, some of whom ask to trade videos, and some of whom scramble for cover. This is part one of a three-part Glammonitor investigation.
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Last year, a New Jersey man was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison after convincing a 15-year-old girl to take explicit photos of herself and posting them on a photo-sharing site.
In 2013, a Rhode Island man was arrested for having child pornography, including images of his seven-year-old stepdaughter, which he posted online on a photo-sharing site.
The cases happened in different states with different victims and different perpetrators, but had one thing in common: the website iMGSRC.ru.
iIMGSRC.ru is a site which allows its users to upload pictures with the option to password-protect albums under the guise of protecting minors from pornography. To see the photos in those collections, users must ask each other for passwords.
The site hosts a photo album titled “very sexy young teens,” marked with a nudity filter, and tagged with phrases such as “small,” “teen” and “young.” And it’s popular.
“We’ve recently reached a population of 708,000 USERS with a total of 42,000,000 PHOTOS uploaded,” reads the homepage.
Despite a policy of “absolutely no child porn” on the site, child pornography still surfaces, evidenced by multiple arrests. And though the site has a clear record of hosting child pornography, it claims to have rules: standard pornography must be deposited in password-protected folders because the photos could be viewed by minors—“which is no good,” the site reads.
iMGSRC is hosted out of Russia, a country currently considering harsh pedophelia laws, including castration. But the website cannot be taken down without governmental action.
A website can be blacklisted with an order from the Roskomnadzor, Russia’s media supervisory body, according to Russian politician Ilya Ponomarev. “If [a] site is blacklisted, nobody inside Russia can access it without special software,” Ponomarev says. But iMGSRC.ru isn’t on that list, and it’s accessible to anyone in Russia.
Aside from the child pornography problem, iMGSRC’s users don’t always own the photos they upload, and the people in the photographs don’t always know pictures of them are floating around the Internet without their permission.
The mess spans the globe, and technology piles on another layer of complication.
“Innovations in digital cameras and videography as well as in computers and Internet-related technology, such as P2P file-sharing programs, have been used by offenders in the production, mass distribution (both commercial and non-commercial distribution), and acquisition of child pornography,” according to a report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a government agency.
There are collections of child pornography cruising around the Internet, being posted and reposted. “We are regularly seeing the same child sexual abuse images traded online over and over,” says John Shehan, vice president at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The unending nature of photos on the Internet deepens trauma for victims, experts agree.
Victims are harmed during the production phase of child pornography, but the perpetual distribution of those images on the Internet can cause a different and significant type of harm to the victims, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission report.
“Many victims live with persistent concern over who has seen images of their sexual abuse and suffer by knowing that their images are being used for sexual gratification and for the purpose of ‘grooming’ new victims,” the report says. Often times, predators gradually introduce child pornography into their seduction techniques as a means to lower inhibitions of potential victims—a process called grooming.
“The reality for the cybercrime-type victim is that these images could come up again,” says Will Marling, executive director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance, a D.C.-area organization that aims to help victims of crimes. Even if the images are no longer circling the web, victims could encounter them in the process of a progressing criminal investigation. “Those images are hurting you again,” Marling says.
Extremely young children are often the subjects of the crimes and photos—more than 96 percent of child pornography offenders had images of minors who were prepubescent or under 12 years of age, data from the Sentencing Commission shows.
About half of child pornography offenders had one or more images that showed sexual abuse of a child under six years old, according to a study of federal and state offenders in 2006, the Sentencing Commission report said.
Of many child pornography arrests, several have have been tied specifically to iMGSRC.ru.
In 2013, the Department of Homeland Security arrested Sean Keener, the man from Rhode Island, for possession of more than 600 images of child pornography, including pictures of his seven-year-old stepdaughter, according to an ABC news story.
Investigators were able to tie an email address they say was his to the website, where Keener allegedly posted compromising images. When the investigators searched his home, they found a computer that belonged to Keener that contained the child pornography, according his arrest warrant. Keener was sentenced to 24 years in federal prison, according to an article in The Providence Journal.
Alex Gonzalez, the man from New Jersey, faced 10 years in federal prison for sexual coercion of a teenager over the Internet in 2014, after he convinced a 15-year-old girl to take explicit photos of herself and send them to him. When she no longer wanted to communicate with the man, he posted her photos to iMGSRC.ru, according to a CBS news report. Gonzalez included the girl’s name, age and phone number with the photographs, the report states. He also posted the photos on Facebook and xHamster.com, a pornography website, according to the CBS news story. When the FBI searched his home, they found more than 2,500 images and 130 videos showing minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct. He plead guilty to distribution and possession of child pornography, according to a statement from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Law enforcement agencies are pushing to keep up with the extra problem technology poses in these cases. Multiple state police forces have added trained police dogs to sniff out hard drives, thumb drives and other technological gadgets. One dog, Thoreau, helped Connecticut police pinpoint a thumb drive that held child pornography inside a metal cabinet, which eventually helped to secure an arrest warrant, according to a Providence Journal story.
Agents also have access to an image-matching technology called PhotoDNA, created in 2009 by Microsoft, which can help flag these images so they can be removed. The software was developed to help mitigate risks for Internet businesses that experience an increasing amount of user-generated content. Qualified organizations, including law enforcement agencies, can use PhotoDNA for free to detect or report distribution of child pornography.
The service is available via NetClean Analyze, a technology used by law enforcement, and the Child Exploitation Tracking System, a system used to help with child pornography networks around the world.
Another service, the CyberTipline, was developed by The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children so that people who suspect crimes of sexual exploitation committed against children can file reports. The tipline, which has been up and running since 1998, has received more than 4 million submissions. Of those, more than 3.8 million (as of March 7) were related to child pornography, according to data provided by Shehan. The center provides the information to a host of organizations from federal to local.
A CyberTipline tip led to the arrest of a teacher in New Jersey in February, according to an ABC news story. A teacher at East Orange Campus High School, Justin Bozinta, was arrested and charged after he allegedly uploaded several child pornography images to a Google+ account. When investigators executed a search warrant of Bozinta’s home, they also found an indoor marijuana growing operation, according to the story.
As far as detection goes, it depends who is looking. Companies generally keep logs of information that could track a user who uploads child pornography by their computer’s IP address. Law enforcement agencies have special identification tools, as well, but individuals or potential victims don’t generally have access to these tools or information.
iMGSRC.ru has an option for its users to avoid having their IP addresses tracked when they log in.
Internet providers are the ones who have the authority to block certain websites from view, says Shehan. But other companies, like Facebook, do have some control. For example, in the course of Glammonitor’s investigation, it was discovered that a Facebook message could not be sent if it contained the full link to iMGSRC.ru.
Victims looking for restitution damages should seek out law enforcement officials, but they often will require more than simply legal assistance.
“They can report it to police, but a lot of what we do is around emotional, physical, financial and safety planning,” Marling says. “It’s not that there are things that can’t be done, it’s that they are time intensive, labor intensive and cost intensive.”
“Restitution is difficult to get even if it’s awarded,” says Shehan. And it gets more complicated when foreign domains are involved.
For cybercrimes like child pornography, it’s not always the money that matters. “With cyber-related crimes, your digital images could last forever. These could emerge at any time, in any place,” says Marling. “It’s disturbing to victims because they can’t even quantify it.”