Prime Minister David Cameron has declared war on internet paedophiles who use the ‘dark web’ to access images of child abuse. This reporter reveals the battle that lies ahead.
One click – that is how close I came to entering what I imagine is the sickening world of child pornography.
I consider myself to have average computing skills. However, I decided to research the underground networks favoured by internet paedophiles to share illicit material.
Twenty minutes later and there it was. I found myself on a database on the Tor network that linked to hundreds of child abuse websites, forums and galleries.
The Protection of Children Act 1978 makes it illegal to make, possess or share indecent material. But the punishment is dependent on the severity of the crime; paedophiles can receive anything from a fine to ten years in prison.
Even if they avoid prison, there is the shame of being named in the local or national press. Your face forever associated with a phrase that sends shivers down the spine: “child porn”.
‘Simple searches on Google’
This week, Prime Minister David Cameron held an internet summit where Google and Microsoft promised to crack down on searches associated with child abuse. Next up is the ‘dark web,’ used by hardened paedophiles.
But all it took was a few simple searches on Google and step-by-step guides helped me through the process of downloading and installing Tor, before accessing the ‘Hidden Wiki’.
The Hidden Wiki helps users to navigate Tor, offering links to drug dealing websites, hackers and even collections of poetry. But it has another category: underage sex.
Just like that, it was done.
On the screen in front of me was a massive directory. Websites such as ‘Pedo Empire’, ‘Hurt 2 The Core’ and ‘Schweet Giggles Wiggles and Tickles’ were at my fingertips. A paedophile using the Hidden Wiki would have rubbed their hands together and dived in.
The sites were categorised according to the user’s “taste” and offered images and videos involving children across the globe.
But there was a surprising casualness about it all. Tutorials on how to set up your own site were being offered, as well as forums for viewers to discuss the quality of the material they had seen. Guides on how to correctly identify and approach paedophiles in the real world were also trumpeted.
However, these websites remain completely hidden to the average internet user. A typical search engine cannot access them because they are hidden deep within the Tor network.
Dr Steve Woodhead of the Internet Security Research Laboratory said the findings would “worry” the government and GCHQ (the British intelligence agency).
He said: “Although it takes twenty minutes of searching for someone with intermediate IT skills, there are probably even easier ways of doing it.
“Tor is quite hard to break but the police and security services have finite resources. They have to get the biggest bang for the buck and use what they have to take as much bad content off as they can.”
Dr Steve Woodhead: “the process of taking down sites is tricky”
He likened Tor to a postal service; if you send a letter to someone, you stick a stamp on the envelope so the receiver knows where it came from. But Tor removes the stamp and keeps a user’s anonymity.
Dr Woodhead continued: “When you lick an envelope, your DNA is on it. So analysing that DNA will show you who sent the letter. There are similar computing forensic techniques to identify which computer or individual sent the information.”
This is how Dr Woodhead foresees the battle between GCHQ and internet paedophiles playing out. The security services can already claim some successes, having already broken Tor and taken down material.
The FBI shut down the “criminal eBay” Silk Road in October, arresting its 29-year-old administrator Ross Ulbricht. But there are now reports that Silk Road is live again.
But is it possible that child pornography websites will simply reappear? “I would hope there is probably not a massive queue of people waiting to replace them,” says Dr Woodhead. “From a criminal point of view, it is a very high risk activity and the penalties are pretty severe.”
“But the money to be made from selling illicit drugs outweighs the risk of trading child pornography.”
But paedophiles are likely not swayed by money. They watch and share child pornography to feed their sordid addiction. To them, it’s just instinct.
Claire Lilley, the head of child safety at the NSPCC, said that they are prepared for a “long fight for the sake of foully abused children”.
She said: “We are pleased that the UK’s major search engines have committed to tackle those offenders who use the ‘open’ web to search for child abuse images. However, this action is by no means a silver bullet.
“The ‘dark net’ is a murky world inhabited by the more dedicated sex offenders and will require a concerted effort to stop their vile trading.
“The internet industry need to use their phenomenal technological expertise to find solutions, and the police need enough resources to make major inroads to tackling offenders.”