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Police consider the internet to be a vital resource in helping fight and prevent crime. But often perpetrators are able to stay a step ahead.
A recent New York Times investigation indicated tech companies saw the number of online photos and videos of children being sexually abused more than double over just the last year to 45 million, and this form of cybercrime has grown exponentially over the last decade.
Let's consider the term child pornography. Sgt. Billy Lynn has investigated these cases for the Bloomington Police Department for 14 years. He doesn't call it that. Lynn said he considers the term too tame to explain what is likely the worst day in a child's life.
“It would be more accurately described as the visual depiction of the violent sexual assault of children more often than not,” Lynn said. “I think that seems to ring a little bit different when you describe it that way.”
Lynn said this underground industry has evolved dramatically. When he started work on such cases most of the contraband went through the mail.
“The U.S. postal inspectors years ago used to be the primary investigators of this stuff because a lot of it had to go through the mail,” Lynn explained. “Of course, then the internet popped up and the ease in which people can trace these images can be so much more … it started normalizing a lot of that behavior and more and more people started becoming involved in it.”
The advent of smart phones, social media, and cloud storage led to the online explosion of illegal materials. Lynn said perpetrators peddle them on the dark web through encryption that prevents the general public and law enforcement from finding the content through conventional search engines.
“To be honest there are so many of them, we don’t have time to work them all,” Lynn declared. “We don’t have the bodies to work them all.”
He said the truly heinous cases get the most attention.
“There’s that whole difference, you have a toddler being raped compared to a 16- or 17-year-old maybe allowing her pictures to be taken,” Lynn said. “You have to decide (which to investigate). They are both wrong, but you have to look at which is more serious and which ones to go after.”
Lynn said he's not just looking at the severity of the images and videos, but also who is likely consuming it.
“We look for those that are obviously prepubescent that are not just posing, but they are actually being sexually assaulted and we go after those,” Lynn said. “It’s been my experience that when you get the people that have a sexual interest in those types of images, they are highly likely to have committed a hands-on offense. That’s what we are really going after.”
In Normal, online sex crimes aren't as much of a burden, according to police chief Rick Bleichner.
“We have sufficient resources to investigate the complaints that we have received,” Bleichner said. “It does take some time to work through those. It’s a resource allocation issue.”
Bleichner said his department has seen some increase in recent years. Normal gets about one online sex crime case per month on average, and sometimes they fall into another jurisdiction. He said finding a physical location for these crimes can get tricky. Many originate overseas.
Bleichner said the biggest investigative challenge is sifting the overwhelming number of online records.
“Prior to the explosion of the internet you could send a subpoena to a bank and get bank records or send a subpoena somewhere to get emails, but now you’ve got these large volumes of storage and data and media that now, once you have access to, you have to sort through that,” Bleichner said.
Technology companies are supposed to look proactively for illicit activity. Police say they rarely do. BPD's Billy Lynn said at the very least the companies need to help police track down a case then they get a tip.
“A lot of these companies don’t have the ability or choose not to police their own systems,” Lynn said. “Some of these decentralized applications, these things aren’t really going through the servers, they are just connecting from point to point.”
Police in Normal encounter similar challengers. Bleichner said it requires patience.
“It does sometimes take a little while,” Bleichner explained. “Sometimes we have to word it a certain way to get exactly what we want, but our investigators are pretty good at having contacts at those particular tech companies call them to say, ‘Here’s what I’m looking for. What do you need?’”
The Illinois attorney general's office can help municipal police agencies. The attorney general launched the Internet Crimes Against Children task force more than 20 years ago. It provides free training and equipment and helps local departments pool resources to investigate online sex crimes.
Lynn said that's helpful but it's still not enough. He's not sure there ever can be enough help to pursue every sexual predator online.
“You could probably throw three or four more bodies at combating online child pornography and still hardly put a dent in it,” Lynn said.
Bloomington Police Chief Dan Donath said child pornography is a big problem, but it's only one of many kinds of crime.
“We all have to operate within the constraints of budgets and the reality of running a city,” Donath said. “We know what our constraints are in regard to our manpower and so we try to allocate that proportionally as best we can.”
Lynn said one tool that has helped law enforcement in recent years is tougher sentencing guidelines in the state.
“They have since made great changes and great sentencing enhancements on these charges,” Lynn said. “When we first started, we took most of our cases federal because we had the bigger hammer in the federal system.”
Child pornography possession carries a sentence of four to 15 years in prison. Anyone convicted of producing or distributing child pornography faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years behind bars. Lynn said he wants tougher sentencing for these criminals just to get them off the street. He said it's not about creating a deterrent. He doesn't think that works for these criminals.
“These people are driven by something they honestly have a hard time controlling,” Lynn said. “It’s almost an addiction. They know it’s wrong. They hide it, it’s their secret side. They don’t want anyone to know about it, but that feeling seems to overwhelm them most of them and they just continue to do it now matter what the cost.”
Spending a working life investigating crimes that rob children of their innocence could easily make someone angry. Lynn said he's not. He said he feels mostly pity for the offenders.
“I’ve come to the opinion that people do not have the conscious choice of what they find sexually attractive,” Lynn said. “A lot of these people that seem to find children sexually attractive sometimes can’t control their behavior.”
Many of those crimes will never be prosecuted. There are too many for police to track and Lynn said the technology is moving so fast that police are always playing catch up.
A spokesperson for Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said the ICAC task force has been involved in more than 1,700 arrests of sexual predators since 2006 and has provided internet training and education to thousands of law enforcement professionals and hundreds of thousands of parents, teachers and students.
“Protecting children from online predators one of Attorney General Raoul’s top priorities,” Attorney General deputy press secretary Tori Joseph said. “The Attorney General’s High Tech Crimes Bureau works to provide important training and education programs in the area of computer crimes, including online child pornography, online sexual abuse, online fraud, e-mail threats, identity theft and computer hacking.”