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Back to Archives | Back to December 2003 Contents 

Child Pornography On the Internet: New Challenges Require New Ideas

Julian Fantino, Chief of Police, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Chief Julian Fantino, Toronto Police Service
Chief Julian Fantino, Toronto Police Service
Who ever would have imagined a medium being created allowing criminals to roam free anonymously. The Internet has transformed the distribution and manufacturing of child pornography into a high-tech, sophisticated criminal enterprise. The Internet is growing by millions of pages per day, and there are presently about 500 million users worldwide. It gives those who sexually abuse children the ability to make, view, store, and distribute images of the most horrific child abuse from the comfort of their own homes. Digital technology allows the synchronization of the production and distribution of child pornography (real time sexual abuse of children).

The Internet facilitates the ability of offenders to communicate directly with other like minded persons as well as future victims through chat rooms, newsgroups, Internet relay channels web sites and e-mail. The high volume of child pornography on the Internet and the lack of international boundaries require the cooperation and sharing of information between and among national and international police departments, government legislators, and the public and private sectors. This powerful medium is proving to be one of the greatest challenges law enforcement has ever had to deal with.

The Sex Crimes Unit of the Toronto Police Service has addressed these challenges by undertaking four initiatives:

  1. Commence a pilot project to identify victims of child sexual abuse
  2. Partner with the Microsoft Corporation to develop new investigative methods using the latest technology
  3. Create an educational video with members of ACTRA (the Canadian actors union)
  4. Host an international conference on child sexual exploitation

Identify Victims of Child Sexual Abuse
Because of their age, vulnerability, and lack of experience, children are the perfect victims. The Internet allows offenders unlimited access to those they seek to victimize by giving them the opportunity to develop a trust between themselves and children. This build-up of trust can eventually lead to the child's being lured into an encounter with someone who wants to victimize them.

The Internet has not only become a limitless library of child pornography but it has opened a new arena for offenders, secret clubs. These offenders engage with other like-minded people, giving them a sense of acceptance as well as the comfort of knowing that they are not alone in their perversion. With this new sense of belonging, these offenders have developed their own online community with an intelligence network. They communicate openly about recent arrests, trends, methods of operation, and so on. They regularly move around the Internet before they themselves are discovered. This community is close knit and although one might be arrested and admit his own guilt, he very rarely will divulge the identity of another member.

There are currently more than 100,000 Web sites containing child pornography. In the last two years, it seems that the age of victims involved in child pornography has dropped dramatically. A large percentage now involves preschool children and newborn babies. The threat to our children is real.

Since January 1, 2001, police and government organizations from all over the world have provided the Toronto Police Service with information on more than 700 Toronto residents who are believed to be in possession of child pornography. Toronto statistics show that 44 percent of the 52 men who have been arrested for possessing child pornography during the same time period have also been charged with, or have a history of, sexually abusing children. Since very few offenders abuse just one child, and since most victims know their offenders, who often hold a position of trust in or with the victim's family, it is essential that police do everything possible to identify child victims of sexual abuse. This will not only save children but also identify the offender.

Police around the world have not been very successful at identifying victims of child sexual abuse whose assaults are memorialized on the Internet. There are currently millions of such images throughout the world, yet less than 500 of these victims have been identified. In Toronto alone, since January 2001, investigators have seized 168 computers requiring forensic examination; these computers contain millions of child pornography pictures and movies. The massive volumes of seizures we are now seeing has also identified resource deficiencies, creating a huge backlog. This reduces the ability of investigators to examine all of the evidence in their case and leads to timely disclosure issues and Charter of Rights challenges.

With this in mind, in 2002, the Toronto Police Service asked the Ontario Provincial Government for funding for a two-year pilot project to add more investigators and computer forensic technicians to child pornography investigations, along with the appropriate equipment and training needed to keep them at the same high level of expertise as the offenders. The government provided 2 million dollars for this pilot project, Assisting and Preventing Child Victims of Sexual Abuse through Focused Investigation of Child Pornography Cases. Every time an offender is arrested for possessing child pornography, investigators interview every child in the offender's life as a potential victim. This pilot project has added three officers and an analyst to the Child Exploitation Section of the Sex Crimes Unit, bringing its strength to 10, and added six forensic computer technicians to Intelligence Services-Technical Support, bringing its strength to eight. During the first six months of the pilot project, two victims of sexual abuse have been identified and moved into a place of safety. Dozens of others have been interviewed.

The sexual abuse of a child has a lifelong effect on the victim. Not only do they have to deal with the physical suffering and the psychological effects, but they now must also cope with the fact that pictures of their abuse could possibly be on the Internet forever. Therefore, it is imperative that victims receive the support and assistance they require as soon as possible, in order that they may begin the healing process.

Investigators' main and most difficult objective therefore should be to focus on the identification of child victims of sexual assault, to prevent further abuses, and to ensure victims receive the required assistance necessary for recovery. The Toronto Police Service is using the following method to achieve their goal:

  • Identify and prosecute offenders
  • Publicize arrests
  • Identify child victims and the provide them specialized child victim support
  • Educate the public
  • Establish and maintain community and criminal justice personnel links to ensure the reporting and prosecution of offences
  • Monitor offenders through the Sex Offender Registry

New Investigation Methods and Latest Technology
In February 2003 the Toronto Police Service and the Microsoft Corporation joined forces to address new challenges facing investigators. Developing a Child Exploitation Network, capable of being rolled out across Canada and beyond, and allowing investigators to log on to and search a suspect's computer immediately after seizure to examine the contents, without corrupting it, are just two of the initiatives. This cooperative effort will lead to better investigative methods and new technology for law enforcement, such as how to better identify victims and how to deal with the massive volumes of seized evidence.

Educational Video
In the spring and summer of 2003, members of the Child Exploitation Section and ACTRA created a music video providing an inside look at the frustrations inherent to these types of investigations and the vulnerability of children left unsupervised on the Internet.

An International Conference
The Toronto Police Service Sex Crimes Unit hosted an international conference on child exploitation from September 22 to 26, 2003. Presenters from all over the world offered expertise on new methods, case studies, and best practices to the 400 participants. The Internet can transcend all borders; thus, networking in this area is vital.

One presentation focused on a new study, "The Effects of Viewing Child Pornography on Investigators." The impact that these investigations have on police and civilian staff must be monitored closely. Most people in society don't or can't grasp the concept of what child pornography is, falsely believing that it involves teenagers romping on a beach, not a baby in diapers being violently raped. Full-length movies recording these assaults are regularly seized, often with romantic music playing in the background. Because of the affect these investigations can have on the staff, it is mandatory in the Toronto Police Service that employees assigned to work on such cases attend counseling three times a year.

Future Challenges
As technology continues to progress, child pornography investigators are faced with the following challenges:

  • Computer software designed to defeat the forensic retrieval of evidence
  • Encryption commonly available on operating systems such as Windows XP
  • Steganography, a technique used to hide child pornography images inside other images
  • Volume of data stored on large, inexpensive computer hard drives (almost a million pictures of child pornography were seized from one Toronto suspect's computer)
  • Portable computer storage devices designed to resemble key chains or pens
  • Storage of illicit material on the servers of corporate IT systems
  • Prepaid credit cards available for purchase in convenience stores and virtually untraceable because no identification is needed or recorded when purchasing the cards
  • Cell phone cameras that can take pictures or create movies and transmit them over the Internet to another cellular phone or personal digital assistant (PDA) and that are virtually untraceable

The world is changing rapidly, and the methods used by sexual predators who prey on children are changing with it. If police restrict themselves to traditional methods of conducting investigations, they will not be able to keep up. Only once they begin to think outside the box will they discover those new methods necessary to save children. ♦

The Cyber Frontier and Children

Quick Facts
  • Nine out of 10 school-age children (ages 6 to 17) had computer access in 2000 and were rapidly gaining Internet access. (Source: U.S. Census Bureau, "Home Computers and Internet Use in the United States: August 2000," September 2001)
  • About 80 percent of children have Internet access in school, regardless of their ethnic group or family income. (Source: U.S. Census Bureau, September 2001)
  • Only 17 percent of youth and 11 percent of parents could name a specific authority, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), CyberTipline, or an Internet service provider to which they could report an Internet crime. (Source: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Youth Internet Safety Survey, 2001)
  • More than 80 percent of children who used the Internet in 2002 did so at home, a substantial increase over 2000 and 2001, and nearly three-quarters went online at school, up from little more than half of children in 2000. (Source: UCLA's Internet Report, January 2003)
  • 78 percent of children go online at least a few times a week. (Source: Kaiser, 2001)
  • Among the youth who go online, about 70 percent say they have accidentally stumbled across pornography online. (Source: Kaiser, 2001)
  • Nearly a third of American kids say they spend more time accessing the Internet than watching TV in 2002, up from 23 percent in 2001. (Source: UCLA's Internet Report, January 2003)

Source: Business Software Alliance United States, 1150-18th Street, N.W., Suite 700, Washington, DC 20036 USA; phone 202-872-5500; fax 202-872-5501;

Please cite as:

Julian Fantino, "Child Pornography on the Internet: New Challenges Require New Ideas, " The Police Chief 70 (December 2003): 28–30.



From The Police Chief, vol. 70, no. 12, December 2003. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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