GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/Taking off the masks
According to an Oct. 8, 2003, report by the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center, more than 20,000 images of child pornography are posted on the Internet every week. Around the country, multi-jurisdictional task forces are using a variety of technologies, such as network analyzers, to investigate and arrest adults that attempt to exploit children online.
“The Internet has made it easier for the bad guys to commit their crimes,” says Pete Gessford, a Perry Township, Ohio, officer who serves on the town’s Electronic Crimes Section taskforce. “While the common pedophiles or molesters used to risk exposure when they watched children at the playground, they now have a certain factor of anonymity when committing the same crime online. Our goal is to expose that anonymity with the help of advanced technology.”
The Perry Township Electronic Crimes Section taskforce uses three methods to find child pornographers: posing as children in online chat rooms to set up a meeting, identifying Internet protocol (IP) addresses for computers that are used to distribute child pornography, and reviewing computer files provided by corporate IT departments that suspect employees of illegal activity. For the last two methods, the taskforce members use a network analyzer, which is software that can immediately capture and display the IP addresses of a user. Before using the software, investigators had to subpoena Internet service providers (ISPs) to determine the IP addresses of users, wasting time and money.
“I take a more active role in tracking down file servers on the Internet,” Gessford says. “For example, from the Internet I log into servers, find an IP address that is hosting the suspected child pornography, issue a subpoena to the ISP and then execute a search warrant on the suspect’s computer.”
Police officers have tried to use free software (freeware), such as Kazaa, to track down pedophiles, but, although freeware can provide the IP address for a computer hosting child pornography, the reliability of such data is questionable. Because the software is free, the developer is not obligated to provide an accurate program, and there is no technical support to ensure the program is being used appropriately. As many officers may have found already, the evidence gathered through freeware does not always hold up well in court. Gessford has found that a network analyzer’s information is more credible in court.
Police officers have many responsibilities, but network administration typically is not a job requirement. Although analyzers were designed to monitor and maintain general computer network health, police officers can be trained to use them to identify the addresses of computer stations and determine details about criminal activity, such as the exact time it occurred. A comprehensive network analyzer speeds the investigation process, ultimately preventing additional crimes.
The author is a senior systems engineer for Minneapolis-based Network Instruments.