Child Pornographers Leave Behind PhotoDNA

Filed under: In The News

Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Child pornographers are finding it hard to hide online. They leave behind too much forensic evidence.

Photographs, it turns out, are not unlike human bodies. You can disguise them through cosmetic surgery, but, in the end, DNA reveals the truth.

Photos have a sort of DNA, too.

No matter how much you doctor them, certain tell-tale digits always remain to help authorities track down the original source. That's bad news for child pornographers and goods news for the people who want to put them behind bars.

The Chicago Sun-Times reports Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is meeting this week with Internet moguls to urge them to adopt a technology called PhotoDNA to aid child-pornography investigations in her state.

James Bond would be impressed by this technology. Developed by Microsoft three years ago, it promises to bring in a lot more bad guys than cufflinks that shoot tranquilizer darts. It identifies the digital "fingerprint" of a photo and track its origins -- even if users change the sizes of the images or reformat them.

The Sun-Times reports Microsoft execs donated the technology to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. PhotoDNA makes it much easier to nab child pornographers, Ernie Allen, the president of the center, tells the newspaper.

"This is an extraordinary tool," Allen says.

He is asking Google and other major Internet companies to join Facebook in adopting the technology.

There was a time -- right before the dawn of the Internet -- that child pornography had been all but eliminated. Then it exploded with technology.

"The numbers are so big, they just turn your stomach," Mike Hood, an assistant attorney general who runs Madigan's high-tech crimes unit, tells the Sun-Times. "The Internet has allowed this to explode -- it has allowed all these people to connect."

But if technology caused the problem, it is poetic justice for it to provide a solution.

The Sun-Times reports most Internet child porn is traded or shared, much like music or video files, often in private chat rooms -- making it harder for investigators to uncover.

"It is now overwhelmingly a product of networks and file-sharing," Allen tells the newspaper.

Ten years ago, undercover investigators had to haunt online chat rooms, pretending to be perverts out to collect and trade child porn. Now they can tag photos by a series through a series of identifying digits called "harsh values."

"Every file has a genetic fingerprint," Hood tells the newspaper.

Investigators can trace the files when they are downloaded, tracking them to a specific computer by its unique Internet protocol address.

When Illinois authorities began hunting for viewers of online child porn last summer, the Sun-Times reports they caught a disturbing number of sickos in their net.

They found some 8,000 people tapping the Internet to access child porn. "These are truly the most horrendous, vile images," Madigan tells the Sun-Times. She describes many of the pictures as "crime scene photos" documenting sexual attacks on children.

"It's disturbingly prevalent, and it just can't be ignored," she says.

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