RealTime IT News

Feds Launch P2P Child Porno Sweep

More than 65 individuals face child pornography distribution charges after a six-month investigation of peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, according to federal officials.

Speaking at a news conference Friday afternoon, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said the P2P probe, which began late last year, resulted in the identification of "thousands" of suspect computers used to access child pornography and 350 actual searches.

The multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional P2P initiative that involved the combined reources of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies used several techniques - including undercover work - to infiltrate the P2P networks and indentify those who have distributed and taken possession of child pornographic images.

The investigation is part of an ongoing effort by law enforcement to keep pace with emerging technologies that are being used to commit or facilitate crimes.

The General Accounting Office concluded in a report released last year that the risks of inadvertent exposure to pornographic content using P2P software are no greater than those posed by other Internet applications, but the exploding popularity of the file-sharing software has raised concerns that they are providing a safe haven for child pornography traffickers.

"Today's announcement sends a clear message that the digital environment will not offer sanctity to those pedophiles who lurk in peer-to-peer networks. We will identify you. We will pursue you. We will bring you to justice," FBI Director Robert Mueller said.

Ashcroft added, "The Department of Justice stands side-by-side with our partners in the law enforcement community to pursue those who victimize our children under the perceived, but false, cloak of anonymity that the peer-to-peer networks provide."

The maximum federal sentence for the distribution of child pornography is 20 years in prison. The Protect Act, enacted on April 30, 2003, also created a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison for the crime. If an individual committed a prior sex abuse offense, the mandatory minimum is 15 years in prison and the statutory maximum is 40 years.

Unlike traditional computer networks, which employ the use of a server to exchange files, P2P networks allow users to connect their computers directly to one another, without the use of a central server. Once a user installs a peer-to-peer software application on his or her computer, he or she can directly access and search the files designated for distribution on any of the computers that are using the network at that moment in time, and then download desired files to his or her computer.

The Distributed Computing Industry Association (DCIA), a P2P trade group representing Kazaa and other file-sharing companies, was quick to praise the arrests.

"No amount of child pornography is acceptable, and we are committed to doing all we can to eliminate this illicit content from peer-to-peer file-sharing environments," the DCIA said in a statement. "DCIA Members supported the covert operations that led to these arrests, and the DCIA is working with the FBI to introduce deterrence and education programs in coming months."

Among those arrested was Jimmy Richardson Morrison, a 40-year-old male from Modesto, Calif., who, according to law enforcement officials, admitted to distributing child pornographic images. When asked why he used P2P networks, police say he replied, "Because the cops are in the chat rooms." Richardson is in custody in California pending trial.

As a part of the investigation, a federal grand jury in Houston indicted 28-year-old Stephen Alan Gardner last week on charges of distributing images of child pornography from his home computer and possession of child pornography.

According to court documents, a file containing movies depicting children being sexually assaulted had been made available for sharing from a computer at Gardner's home using a P2P software program. Gardner is currently being held without bond in the Harris County, Tex., jail on charges filed in the state of Colorado involving the sexual assault of a six-year-old child.

"ICE will use its technical expertise and its legal authorities to target those who would purchase child pornography over the internet or trade in those despicable images," said Michael J. Garcia, Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "By partnering with our colleagues at the Department of Justice and in local and state law enforcement, we will uncover these transactions and bring the offenders out of the anonymity of cyberspace and into a court of law."