P2P rising channel for child porn

Peer-to-peer networks of the Kazaa and Morpheus type are emerging as a growing channel for the trading of illegal pornography, says Internal Affairs chief censorship compliance inspector, Steve O'Brien.

Peer-to-peer networks of the Kazaa and Morpheus type are emerging as a growing channel for the trading of illegal pornography, says Internal Affairs chief censorship compliance inspector, Steve O’Brien.

When the compliance team started work, in 1996, the focus for the trading of such material was in bulletin boards. In the late 1990s and early this decade, the centre moved to Internet Relay Chat (IRC), but now the peer-to-peer networks are on the DIA’s watch-list too, and cases are coming up in court for trading on these networks.

The team of seven, which recently recruited its first woman member, is also charged with checking compliance with censorship law in physical media such as books, films and videos. “We find VCDs and DVDs, mostly from Asian markets, which may simply not conform to labelling regulations, but there is some illegal hardcore stuff [on those media],” O’Brien says.

But the team still spends more than 80% of its time investigating and following up cases of trading on one or another internet medium, he says.

“We also look at [Usenet] newsgroups to see who’s been posting what,” he says, “and we investigate some websites, but that’s usually as a result of a specific complaint.”

There is little evidence of a technological “arms race” between illegal porn traders and law-enforcement teams, as there is with hackers and virus authors, says O’Brien.

Offenders make some attempt to cover their location by acting through proxies; recently convicted Palmerston North offender Timothy Jepson was using this tactic and boasted, unknowingly to a DIA officer, that he could not be caught for that reason.

There are ways of getting through proxy-mediated concealment, says fellow inspector Phil Priest, declining for obvious reasons to go into further detail. But at the other extreme there are a lot of offenders with “quite limited knowledge of the medium”, who make no attempt at covering their tracks.

A number of traders used to use unprotected Wingate servers to shield their identity, he says (there are readily downloadable tools to search for open Wingates) but the chat and trading channel moderators themselves have started to “boot” people coming through Wingate servers, and indicate that they are not welcome.

Occasionally, a way of supposedly evading detection shows a surge in use and is obviously being passed around among suspect traders.

By the same token, there is little use of encryption, O’Brien says. Offenders “seem to like instant gratification, and having to encrypt and decrypt files slows things down”.

The DIA team does not make any effort itself to break encryption; that’s a job for the police and their forensic partners, he says. Some shallow encryption schemes have been broken, but he acknowledges the more sophisticated algorithms do present a problem for law-enforcement teams.

The status of an encrypted file under the censorship law (Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act) is very broadly defined. If a file can “by the use of a computer program” be converted into an objectionable file, then the original file is judged to be objectionable.

However, for any two arbitrary bit strings a program can be written to convert one into the other, so strictly according to the legal definition every file is objectionable.

“We’ve never had to argue [the status of an encrypted file] in court,” says O’Brien.

On the other side, law-enforcement teams internationally share software tools for detection; anything that one team develops is offered free of charge to all others.

The New Zealand DIA has developed and contributed a few “quite basic scripts” such as one that raises an alarm when a person coming within the country’s jurisdiction enters a channel suspected of illegal trading.

The process of investigating a case can be quite lengthy, involving careful collation of evidence, which must be submitted to the Crown Law Office and the Attorney-General, he says. The recently convicted Jepson was apprehended in late 2001.

The team does not give a great deal of attention to borderline cases like pictures of nude children and adolescents “just posing”, which could involve jurisdictional disputes.

“Our concern is not really to stop people looking at pictures; it’s to stop the abuse of children involved in the making of this [hardcore] material,” and where there is a clear case of child sexual abuse, no jurisdiction will defend it, he says.

Jepson was the 104th person convicted through the team’s action. O’Brien says a recent statement on a Wellington-based daily news website that “Internal Affairs has investigated 500 cases of internet child porn, leading to 170 people being charged, resulting in 103 convictions [before the Jepson case]” is inaccurate.

“I don’t know where they got those [first two] figures,” he says. Of those brought to court on an alleged offence all but one have been convicted, he says; that case was dismissed on grounds of insufficiently convincing evidence. It was shown that illegal material had been downloaded to a particular computer, but it was not well enough established who had been using it at the time.

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