District Attorney Tom Spota does not download Britney Spears songs. But he thinks it's likely his college-age daughter exchanges tunes from Internet file-sharing programs.
So he was incensed when a confidential source told his office that there was child pornography - lots of it - to be found by simply typing Britney's name on such services as Kazaa or Morpheus, Internet sites known for facilitating music-file trading. The Suffok County, New York, district attorney then mounted an investigation, which led to the indictment of 12 people for possessing and promoting child pornography.
"I could have used the full resources of my 150 prosecutors working eight hours a day to prosecute because there is so much of it," says Mr. Spota.
The problem is just now coming to the attention of law-enforcement officials from Wyoming to Long Island. Prosecutors are serving up indictments. Federal agents are actively working on leads and anticipating their own indictments. Earlier this month, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony that the programs represent "a major growth area" for the distribution of child porn. And grass-roots groups are clamoring for more controls, especially a requirement that file-sharing software providers obtain parental permission before minors can download.
Because of the nature of the Internet, it's hard to quantify the problem. But reports of child porn in shared files have jumped up to 400 percent a year recently, according to National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in Washington, which acts as a clearinghouse for child-porn tips. And since 2001 the center has received 1,500 reports of child porn in shared files, out of 152,000 leads annually.
"The titles [of shared files, such as 'Britney'] are bad enough, but when you combine that with the natural curiosity of kids, there is a real risk of what they are exposed to," says Robbie Cal-laway, chairman of the NCMEC.
Indeed, investigators say many of the keywords that bring up pornographic files include names such as J Lo and Mandy Moore, or words like "young" and "play." Mr. Callaway, who is also president of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, recently saw a dramatic demonstration of those cues. An agent typed in "Boys and Girls Clubs" on a file-sharing site. "It had nothing to do with us," Callaway says of the pornography that came up.
Police are preparing to track down offenders. Last week in Connecticut, computer expert Detective Michael Sullivan of Naperville, Ill., taught colleagues from Portland, Ore., South Bend, Ind., Cape Cod, New York City, and elsewhere how to understand the "peer to peer" (P2P) shared files and identify offenders.
The file-sharing networks have attracted pedophiles because of a perception that it's harder to be identified through them. "They think there is far less risk, they leave fewer fingerprints," says Callaway.
But trained investigators say they can find offenders. Recently the Wyoming division of criminal investigation arrested a man trading child porn on a file-sharing network. "One of the comments he made was that he uses P2P because there are a lot of cops out there on chat rooms and he thought it provided some extra anonymity," says Flint Waters, the lead agent for the state's Internet Crimes Against Children unit.
Law-enforcement officials are hoping the suppliers of services will help. For example, many Internet service providers (ISPs) maintain logs of users for only a few days. "The longer the better," says Tatum King, section chief at the CyberCrime Center at US Immigration Customs Enforcement.
Last week, police in Germany broke up one of the biggest international child-porn rings, with 26,500 users in 166 countries. But there are still plenty of traditional child-porn websites, including pay sites and chat rooms.
One indication of providers' response to the proliferation of sites came last week when the Microsoft Network announced it was ending Internet chat rooms in Europe because of their misuse. Children's safety groups hailed the decision.
It's the type of action many US groups would like to see with P2P. Laura Ahearn, president of the Megan's Law Resource Center, wants the file-sharing networks to insist on parental permission for minors. As part of obtaining the beacon to enable service, parents would have to acknowledge "the dangers of P2P," she says. "File sharing poses unique and specific dangers to the children outside the dangers on the Internet."
At hearings earlier this month before the Senate Finance Committee, file-sharing organizations promised to cooperate with authorities. P2P United, a newly formed lobbying group of six P2P services, says it plans to launch a parent-resource center on how to protect children. On Monday, the organization issued a code of ethical conduct for its own members.
"We are also preparing a range of resources for parents that they may find useful to prevent the victimization of their children," says Adam Eisgrau, executive director of P2P United.
If the industry does not act on its own, it might find itself compelled to do something. There is now proposed legislation in the House that would direct the Federal Trade Commission to require P2P networks to notify users of the threats posed by the software and would allow its installation only with parental consent. Installation would be blocked if the parent has a "do not install" beacon.
The legislation, cosponsored by Rep. Joe Pitts (R) of Pennsylvania. and Rep. Chris John (D) of California, has yet to have any hearings. One problem: The beacon is still in development.