Phillip Osborn is logged onto an Internet chat room, where 60 to 70 men from around the world converse. But they're not there to talk about sports, classical music, or global commerce - they're trading pornographic photos of children. And Mr. Osborn, a US Customs agent, is cybersnooping in an effort to stop them.
In the past, most of these smut traders were protected by the anonymous nature of the Web.
But now US Customs has dramatically beefed up its staff, acquired state-of-the-art computers, and enlisted the help of police forces around the world. Just this week, Customs officially opened up a new CyberSmuggling center that includes high-speed lines, a forensics lab that can find images hidden deep in a computer's memory, and a "war room" to plan sophisticated multicountry arrests.
The message to pornographers: "Wherever you are, whoever you are, we have the capacity to find you - there is no refuge in cyberspace," says Raymond Kelly, Customs commissioner.
Mr. Kelly's threat is real. For the past two years, Customs has averaged about 200 arrests per year. That's likely to increase, since the number of agents working on the child-porn cases has jumped in a year from three full-time agents to 38 today.
Only a few years ago, Customs' forensics lab was composed of a few tables and equipment borrowed from other agencies. Now, technicians use sophisticated equipment to search hard drives. To ensure the material will stand up in a trial, Customs makes a duplicate of all the information in a computer's memory. It's the duplicate that's searched. "We don't want to be accused of tampering with evidence," says Customs agent Claude Davenport, who works out of the lab.
The Customs computers are going to be busy. Kevin Delli-Colli, director of the center, says there are estimates of 100,000 Web sites that are involved with child pornography. And the growth has been exponential. Last year, Customs found one Web site that had 3,000 hits in its first month, 90,000 the second, and 3.2 million in its third (and final) month.
In the past, many of these sites were composed of collectors trading photos. Agents have found as many as 10,000 to 20,000 pornographic images stored in their personal computers. But recently, there has been an explosion of commercial sites selling a month of access for anything from $10 to $39. They offer thousands of photos, many of them showing very young children in sexual situations.
"We're trying to track down the purveyors," says Mr. Delli-Colli.
One of the difficulties, however, is that often the Web site originates in a foreign country. This has led the Customs service to offer training to foreign police departments. Among the countries that have gone through the program are the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia, Chile, Argentina, and Britain.
In June, nine officers from the Moscow violent-crimes unit were given lessons on how to track Russian child porn. "I think they were overwhelmed; they didn't realize the scope of the problem," says Delli-Colli.
There is some evidence the Russians are making progress. In recent weeks, they have shut down some of the most blatant commercial Web sites, which were offering thousands of images. Until recently, these sites advertised their availability freely.
"Unfortunately, shutting down a Web site does not mean that the images are still not out there in cyberspace," says Delli-Colli.
One of the problems is cultural differences. For example, in Spain, it's illegal to distribute child pornography, but not illegal to possess it. Some Asian countries have laws, but don't enforce them. And "some nations treat it the same as adult pornography," says Delli-Colli.
The CyberSmuggling unit will do more than child-porn investigations.
Recently, it convinced Thai authorities to crack down on an online pharmacy that was selling valium and other prescription drugs to people who did not have prescriptions. Customs officials say that at first the Thai authorities were indifferent.
But after an investigation Thai officials found the Web site was not linked to any pharmacies or legitimate drug company. "They ended up taking out seven Web sites," says Delli-Colli.
In addition, Customs agents will look for Web sites that are selling products that can be used for weapons of mass destruction. This is more difficult, say Customs officials, since it involves trying to find individuals who are trying to buy equipment, such as incubators which can also be used for legitimate purposes.
The ratcheting up of the child-porn effort is the result of strong congressional interest. The Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus is one of the largest on Capitol Hill.
Two years ago, Rep. Nick Lampson (D) of Texas, founder of the caucus, raised an extra $2 million for the Customs effort. In fiscal year 2000, he rounded up an additional $4 million, which was used to fund the new effort.
Representative Lampson became interested in missing and exploited children after a 12-year-old girl in his Houston district was abducted and murdered. He says he found that child pornographers "taunt law-enforcement officials, who do not have the manpower or resources to hunt them down."
The pornography purveyors themselves seem more than aware these days that law-enforcement officials are looking for them. As Osborn, the Customs agent, searches the Web, he sometimes finds disclaimers posted by those trading the images. Some claim the porn is for "educational purposes."
Another site warns, "If you are a law-enforcement official, you should log off now." Osborn just laughs at these efforts. "They have to be idiots to think it will stop us. If they are committing a crime, we will go after them."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society