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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 December, 2003, 16:05 GMT
Online dragnet to thwart paedophiles
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

An online police operation against paedophiles could help disrupt the ways that people looking for child porn share and swap information online, say experts.

Operation Pin targets internet paedophiles with fake websites that collect details of people wanting to look at child porn.

Computer keyboard, Eyewire
Many people swap child porn online
The move marks a change in tactics by the police who say it sends a message that the net is no different to offline life and will be policed like any other public place.

The web sting has been set up by the UK's National Crime Squad working with the FBI, Interpol, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Australian Hi-Tech Crime Centre.

It was a good idea to target people using the net to seek out images of children being abused, said Dr Rachel O'Connell, research director at the Cyberspace Research Centre at the University of Central Lancashire and an expert on paedophiles' use of the net.

Hidden networks

Dr O'Connell said many committed paedophiles used relatively clandestine methods to swap child porn involving chat rooms, FTP servers and peer-to-peer networks.

But, she said, the recent Operation Ore showed that there were a significant number happy to search the web for child porn and use their credit card to buy it.

"The fact that they were so willing to give out their credit card details is indicative of a certain amount of naivety and that they may not be very computer literate," she said.

Often, she said, people seeking child porn encounter other paedophiles online who then educate them about the ease with which they can be tracked on the net.

Screengrab of Google homepage, Google
Search engines are helping with Operation Pin
"It's a useful measure to disrupt the activities of those who are in the initial stages of utilising the internet," she said.

The fake websites run by Operation Ore aim to stop people joining the more clandestine community of paedophiles which helps to sanitise and justify the actions of its members.

"There's a process of integration that happens," she said, "other paedophiles will give them information about how to avoid detection, where to get the best images and take them through the whole process."

She said it could also help deter or reveal other established abusers too.

"It can be quite a lengthy process to get access to a child in the real world," she said, "looking online for images can fuel their fantasies."

Fake information

Law enforcement agencies behind Operation Pin have worked with search engine operators to ensure that the fake sites appear when someone looks for particular keywords.

The Operation Pin sites also give telephone numbers for abusers to help them get counselling.

"It's a good initiative," said Simon Janes, Managing Director of computer forensics firm Ibas and a former computer crime investigator. "It's good to see the police being pro-active on internet crime."

But he warned that the police would have to be careful with the information they gather about people viewing the fake websites and willing to pay for child porn.

Fingerprints, BBC
Details of potential paedophiles will be captured
"We all know how easy it is to spoof e-mail identities and generally misuse computers and login details," he said.

Mr Janes said Ibas had helped investigate cases where employees had used the computer and login details of other workers for criminal or malicious purposes.

He said: "My concern is that if you are going to gather these details do the police have the experience, skills and expertise to determine that they are accurate or not?"

Mr Janes said many investigations turned on whether it was possible to link an online alias with a real identity or establish that a particular person was using a computer at the time an offence was committed.

The police would also have to work hard to keep the websites and domains used in Operation Pin fresh, said Mr Janes.

He suspected that the names of the websites being used would soon be shared among the net's paedophiles and would have to be changed regularly to keep catching people out.

Asst Chief Constable Jim Gamble
"This is about introducing real policing, real policing into the virtual environment"

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