How a Norwegian newspaper uncovered 100,000 downloaders of child abuse material
by Marie Baleo
Say the word “pedophilia” in public and watch the quasi-universal reaction –there is nothing we loathe more, nothing we are more reluctant to talk about than pedophilia. Cold-blooded serial killers elicit more sympathy than child abusers. So when a team of journalists uncovers data on 95, 000 men around the world who like to spend their free time watching videos of toddlers and children being brutally sexually abused, it’s a pretty big deal. And that is exactly what happened in early October, when Norwegian newspaper VG published a story titled “Nedlasterne” –the downloaders.
During ten months, VG built a world map of thousands of men who had downloaded, and sometimes paid for, over 430, 000 files showing violent sexual abuse of children. Germany tops the charts with 18, 107 downloaders, followed by the United States (13, 630), Russia (11, 118), the United Kingdom (3, 743), and France (3, 393). In Norway, VG found 430 downloaders of child abuse material (also known as CAM), of which 78 have already been positively ID-ed by the team.
At the heart of VG’s team, a journalist (Håkon Høydal) and a data scientist (Einar Otto Stangvik). Høydal writes for VG on online criminality, climate, and abuse. Stangvik, whom Fusion has dubbed “the child porn digilante”, has previously unmasked a Norwegian politician, 25-year-old conservative Tor Johannes Helleland, as a hacker who dabbled in stealing racy pictures of young women from their hard drives and posting them on pornographic websites.
VG’s Nedlasterne has attracted considerable public attention in Norway, but much of the data is yet to be exploited. “We’re still figuring out exactly how we can provide the data and expertise to others. We have interested parties in Denmark and Germany”, says Einar Stangvik. For now, VG’s excellent three-installment series sheds light on an immoral business where everyone, from producers and distributors to consumers, must be held responsible.
How VG found the downloaders
The rise of file-sharing has been nothing short of providential for pedophiles. Some file-sharing platforms keep publicly-available logs of downloads. VG’s team downloaded these logs, which contained information on 36 million downloads, from file names and dates of download, to usernames, email addresses and IPs.
But how could they find CAM, the proverbial needle in a haystack, in these millions of downloads? The team started by searching for abuse file names on both the clear and dark web. This allowed them to compile a list of CAM files, and looked at other downloads made by the same people who’d downloaded these files in hopes of uncovering more CAM.
The team discarded all anodyne downloads, set aside those made outside Norway, and continued to search for additional files downloaded by the same users which could turn out to be CAM. The final result was a list of 5, 500 downloads made in Norway. After some careful sleuthing (crossing usernames, social media accounts, email addresses, IPs), the team was able to identify many of the persons behind these usernames.
Who are these people and what compels them to watch children be abused? To answer these questions, VG called several of these downloaders, then traveled the country to meet ten of them face to face. The resulting documentary, not for the faint of heart, can be viewed here (in Norwegian).
We all think we know what a pedophile looks like. I picture a banal-looking, middle-aged, middle-class white man lurking near a playground. Sadly, it is not that easy – there is no stereotypical pedophile, and no typical downloader of CAM.
When asked what he had been most surprised by in the course of his investigation, VG’s Einar Stangvik says: “Looking beyond the constant shock of seeing how and about what these people communicate, along with the brutality of the abuse, I’d say it was how normal these people seem otherwise. They’ve got normal jobs, normal families and – based on social media – normal interactions.”
Indeed, VG describes the downloaders as “ordinary people, in all professions, all social strata, all income levels, all ethnic affiliations, all religious backgrounds”. Some of them are students, others hold high-ranking jobs in the healthcare industry. Some are IT specialists, others are artists. Many work with children, as youth leaders in religious organizations, sports coaches, or healthcare workers. While VG’s downloaders are all men, some of the downloaded material featured women abusing children – sometimes their own.
Many CAM viewers do share one trait: their blatant dishonesty. Listen to VG’s interviews and you will hear men claim that they stumbled upon child pornography while looking for regular porn, something which is known to be next to impossible. Others describe their attraction to children as a mere “fetish”. Many are emphatic about one thing: they are not pedophiles.
Several of VG’s interviewees believe downloading CAM is in no way as bad as producing it, and that they bear no responsibility in the abused children’s ordeal. Asked what he thought of the children in the videos, a man told VG: “I don’t think about them. Not at all. You know that it isn’t good for them, so you don’t go there with your thoughts”.
In one particularly harrowing interview, Høydal asks a downloader:
– Have you ever considered asking for help?
– I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong. Everyone has different preferences.
– Why do you think society does not tolerate sexual preference for children?
– They are very strict in this country. If the police gets ahold of this, I will land in jail, lose my house, my job. (…)
– If you have a preference for children, what do you do about it?
– Unfortunately, you have to just keep it to yourself.
Another man, asked whether he could be indirectly responsible for the abuse, says: “I’d probably say yes, but it (the abuse) has already happened. And it’s so far away. It’s like … if you see a cow get shot in a film, you don’t think much of it. But if you’re standing right next to a cow that gets shot, you might react. Perhaps then you feel responsible. But not when it’s on film”.
A booming cross-border business
According to a frequently mentioned statistic, the child pornography industry generates 50 billion dollars every year; other sources speak of a 20-billion-dollar industry. In other words, the CAM industry is not a select club of old perverts roaming the web in the privacy of their musty apartment – it’s a multi-billion dollar business of global magnitude, with thriving demand and supply.
Longtime CAM viewers who have built gigantic libraries don’t live on their supplies; they are always out for new material. “We’ve talked with downloaders who’ve been doing this for more than 10 years, and claim to have seen it all. Yet they still seek out new material”, says Einar Stangvik.
And indeed, from websites and email to instant messaging, P2P, and social networks, digital CAM can now be shared through so many channels that it has become virtually impossible to eradicate. Even the adorable Pinterest, known for its cupcake recipes and makeup tutorials, reported it had found child sexual abuse among its pins. A million images of child sexual abuse are currently circulating on the Internet, and 200 new images appear every day.
Individuals searching for child abuse materials lurk on dark-web forums, looking for file links and passwords. They shop for videos and images based on descriptions provided on these forums. “Many file names leave no doubt as to their content”, writes VG: “5 yo cum in mouth. Baby 6 yo fuck anal. Others are cryptic, but no less painful to read when you know what they hide: “With my favorite teddy bear”. “Bathtime”. One video, depicting the abuse of a 7-year-old girl, ends with the mention “greetings to all our fans”.
Contrary to these descriptions and links, the files themselves are usually located on the clear web. Users will sometimes have to click through several ads, generating revenue for the website, before they can access the file. They will also have to register (often at a cost) and usually pay for the file, which they can then download and open using the password.
The revenues earned by file-sharing sites are shared with CAM uploaders, who either produced the material themselves or purchased it, and whose files are sometimes downloaded tens of thousands of times.
However, revenues from commercial sales of CAM on the public Internet seem to have crashed in the last decade. This dramatic decrease reflects, in part, a move from credit-card payments on the public web to Bitcoin payments and anonymous wire transfers. BitCoin payments raise unique challenges, because they allow users to mask their identity more easily (payment requires no more than an email address), while BitCoin is still unregulated by most legal systems.
But the CAM industry also thrives on barter, the exchange of one gruesome file for another, and on custom-made material. VG writes that “in recent years we have seen several examples, particularly in countries like the Philippines, Thailand and other poor, Southeast Asian regions, of material produced upon request”. British police recently arrested a 53-year-old man who had given direct instructions (“Close up, please”) to adults live-streaming child sexual abuse in the Philippines.
Such practices are frequent in the world of Internet CAM, where videos and images are used as a currency to gain legitimacy and access more material. This may be achieved by “(providing) a new photo in which the abuser has written his name on the child” –just in case you had any faith left in mankind.
A significant hurdle in the battle against CAM is the fact that pedophile communities and forums, which contain links to abuse material, are located in the dark web, which is largely accessed through TOR, an anonymity network initially developed by US Naval Research Lab employees in the mid-90s. Some servers are even configured so that they can only receive connections through TOR.
A TOR project video about hidden services.
They are TOR’s hidden services, populated by: 1) journalists, whistleblowers, and people rightfully concerned with their privacy, 2) people looking to buy drugs, 3) people looking to buy weapons, and 4) people looking to buy child pornography. Nowadays, however, this last category clearly dominates the others: last winter, Wired reported that over 80% of visits to the dark web were related to paedophilia.
With almost 100, 000 registered users, 7axxn is an example of a dark web community where users share large quantities of CAM and bloodcurdling advice. Cracked recently wrote about “Pam”, an undergraduate student who infiltrated 7axxn and discovered that many of its members seemed to believe they were in loving sexual relationships with children.
Those individuals, who call themselves “child lovers” and their victims “young friends”, normalize their actions by presenting pedophilia as just another sexual orientation, while discussing the merits of various sedatives to knock children out before they rape them. On 7axxn, “Pam” discovered the Handbook for Pedophiles, which would sound like a joke if it wasn’t the worst thing that’s ever existed.
So what can possibly be done against a globalized industry that runs on absolute secrecy, bartered videos, and powerless victims who can’t or won’t report the abuse they are suffering?
We are not helpless against the plague of child pornography. Our legislators are in a privileged position to deliver a significant blow to this despicable industry. But while many countries have enacted laws against digital CAM, much work remains to be done worldwide.
In 2006, the International Center for Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC) figured out that only 27 countries had enacted suitable laws against CAM offenses. 95 countries had no laws at all on the matter, 54 failed to define child pornography, and 41 did not criminalize possession of CAM. These dangerous legal loopholes are directly enabling the CAM industry and endangering the lives of children everywhere.
Many legal systems –particularly in developing countries– have no specific legislation on child pornography. Instead, they classify it as child labor or child sexual exploitation. But the ICMEC is adamant on the need to differentiate child pornography:
“While such provisions are positive first steps in recognizing child pornography as an evil that affects child welfare, child pornography is a crime and must be recognized as such. Child pornography represents nothing less than the memorialization of the sexual degradation/molestation/abuse/assault of a child.”
The next must-have weapon in an efficient legal arsenal is the criminalization of downloading. In many countries, producing and sharing CAM is prohibited, while downloading it is perfectly legal. In 2012, this was the case in China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore, among others. Indeed, holding downloaders legally responsible is, somehow, still controversial. Norwegian blogger Gunnar Tjomlid writes that arresting downloaders is “like arresting weed smokers in order to halt the drug industry. It won’t work. It’s the wrong focus, and a waste of resources”.
A European man watching child porn on his computer can’t possibly be held responsible for the abuse of a little boy living thousands of miles away in South-East Asia? How could he be responsible for the rape of a young girl filmed in the 1980s, digitized from old VHS, and watched in the year 2015? Plus, the supply would still exist even if the downloader hadn’t watched it. Right?
Wrong! First of all, downloaders sustain the industry by showering it with money. Einar Stangvik notes: “for our specific dataset, the vast majority of the child abuse downloads were paid for. Straight off the bat, one can safely conclude that “our” downloaders have (a) financed services that facilitate near-unmoderated sharing of child abuse material, (b) financed individuals that spread such material”.
But what about barter? Trading files means that many downloaders aren’t actually injecting money into the industry. Are these viewers free of responsibility, or at least less responsible? “Many have told us that the primary currency of the pedophile communities isn’t cash, but files” says Stangvik. “In that case, it goes without saying that downloading is key to both spread and production”.
Barter fuels production, it stimulates the industry, and encourages producers to find new, creative ways of abusing children in order to differentiate their material. “There are so many forums and websites out there where people discuss these abuses, and to some extent let others know what they want to see”, says Stangvik. “That (a) feeds into the fantasies of active abusers and (b) supplies active abuse producers with new ideas for what to show their “fans”.
Viewers’ actions, no matter how passive they appear, bear consequences on the health and safety of children. Downloaders are responsible for the abuse suffered by these children. “I would tell (a downloader) that it is his fault abuse happens. They wouldn’t have filmed it if you hadn’t ordered and paid for it. Therefore, you are guilty”, a victim tells VG.
While punishing downloaders is thus an urgent necessity, it is also crucial to actively seek out and remove existing material from the Internet. Some legal systems force Internet service providers (ISPs) to report suspected CAM to the authorities, but many countries (Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Brazil, to name a few) still fail in this area. This doesn’t mean that ISPs in those countries don’t ever report CAM. A lot of them do so spontaneously – they are just not legally required to.
Without an international effort to harmonize CAM laws, legal systems which fail to punish all actors of this terrible industry will remain more appealing for downloaders, producers, and distributors around the world.
But even a perfect legal system would be useless without diligent, relentless enforcement. Allocating financial resources to law enforcement agencies is perhaps the most efficient way to fight the distribution and purchase of Internet CAM.
Asked about Norway’s resources in this area, Justice Minister Anders Anundsen said: “In 2015, 6 million kroner (approximately US$730, 000) have been earmarked for police work against Internet child abuse.” But funding remains insufficient, especially in light of the increasing technological challenges the police is going to have to face to battle child pornography. “At this point, it doesn’t seem like politicians were pushed enough by the people to properly commit to more funding for Kripos. But we’re not quite done yet, so there’s still hope”, says Stangvik.
But ISPs also have a central role to play by self-regulating and removing CAM of their own motion, but also by providing the police with access to their users’ metadata in order to facilitate identification of downloaders of child pornography. Insufficient retention of subscriber information by ISPs can be a major obstacle in court, where this type of evidence can make or break an entire case. Ideally, ISPs should be required to retain this data for at least 6 months.
Police/ISP partnerships, such as the Child Sexual Abuse Anti-Distribution Filter created by the Kripos and Norway’s largest service provider Telenor, should also be encouraged. With this filter, individuals trying to download CAM are met with this:
Carefully-phrased, reassuringly neutral, it tells visitors that their IP address will not be recorded, and that their information will not be used to identify them. On its first day, the page received 7, 000 hits. “It’s a fairly low-cost measure to (sort of) enforce some content restriction, as well as spread information”, notes Einar Stangvik.
Initiatives led by major tech actors can also help. In August 2014, Google revealed it was compiling its own database of child abuse images. These images are compared to photos sent through Gmail; any match with the database is reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). The company told PCWorld that CAM is “filtered both in Gmail and in search requests”.
A race against time to find and rescue victims
Many of the young victims featured in child abuse material are not physically coerced or abducted. They are manipulated into submission and silence by adults who are often members of their own family. Some are ashamed, some are too scared to ask for help. Some are so young they have yet to learn how to speak — several children in the material uncovered by VG are only months old.
These children face a life of psychological trauma and a heightened risk of mental illness (depression, self-harm, post traumatic stress disorder and dissociative personalities are all frequently observed in survivors of child abuse). Locating them and protecting them from further harm is a public emergency. Here lies perhaps the most daunting task for law enforcement agencies. A Norwegian police officer told VG: “Sometimes kids are easy to identify. In some cases we bang our heads against the wall for several months before we can find out who they are. Unfortunately, we are unable to identify everyone”.
It is all the more urgent to find and help these victims that, in the words of the ICMEC, “victims portrayed in the images are getting younger and younger and the images are becoming more graphic and more violent”. In the US, 19% of individuals arrested for possessing child pornography had images of children under age 3.
Even worse: the ICMEC reports “an increase in the percentage of the most horrific sexual abuse images of children online, from 7% in 2003 to 29% in 2006, demonstrating a growing demand for more severe images of abuse”. Violence is becoming a powerful sales argument.
This trend is clearly visible in what I found to be the most heartbreaking passage in VG’s article: “one of these files is perhaps the worst film the Norwegians in VG’s data have downloaded. VG has not watched the film, but on the hidden web it is described this way: “1 to 3-years-old, violently abused. Taken by the father. In many of the videos you can hear her scream or cry, and the father must cover her mouth to silence her”. “The description isn’t a warning”, VG concludes. “It’s an advertisement”.
A public health debate
Beyond the lowlife CAM producers who, while not pedophiles, are in this business for the money, and the lowlife, deluded abusers who claim they are “child lovers”, lies a minority of pedophiles who actively seek help.
These pedophiles are fully aware of just how intolerable their urges, are and want nothing more than to get rid of them. Consider, for example, this 16-year-old pedophile who created a support group for young pedophiles seeking to rid themselves of their attraction to children.
One of VG’s interviewees, a civil servant in his forties, told Høydal that he had asked for help several times and tried multiple therapies, to no avail: “I work hard to understand how I can control myself and stay away from this. (…) I don’t want to contribute to this industry”. Other interviewees also expressed a wish to “become normal again”.
While pedophilia is an illness with no known cure, therapy can prove useful in dissuading pedophiles from acting on their impulses, when it is estimated that 30 to 80% of viewers of child abuse material may one day abuse children themselves. To this end, Germany has launched Project Dunkelfeld. The project’s website, “Don’t offend”, provides information on free, confidential therapy for people who “like children in ways they shouldn’t”. However, such a system is only possible in countries, like Germany, which have no mandatory reporting laws.
Could the solution be to add to the penalization of CAM downloading mandatory, court-ordered therapy? Non-offender pedophiles left to their own devices are not unlikely to abuse children one day, and it is our duty to think of ways to prevent such an outcome, even if it means putting our feelings of hate and disgust aside.
The prevalence of pedophilia is estimated to be 4 to 5%. This means that for every 20 to 25 people you see walking on the street, one may, statistically, be a pedophile. Pedophilia is not an abstract concept, far removed from our pristine lives. It is a masterfully concealed perversion, an illness that has always existed and always will, in every country and every city, unbeknownst to most of us. And in a world where 40% of people have Internet access, watching children be violently abused has never been easier.
To counter the rise of Internet CAM, lawmakers, police, corporations, and the public must come together. “Unless we want to fall behind, it’s time for politicians and law enforcement officials to embrace this, and focus on developing more effective tooling, techniques and approaches to future digital crime”, says Einar Stangvik. Through a combination of legislation, funding, proactive work by major tech players and ISPs, and public awareness, the spread of CAM can be slowed. Children who are suffering as you read this can be rescued.
While discouragement might sometimes loom, it is our duty, as members of the public, citizens, and human beings, never to abandon. In Norway, VG certainly plans on persevering. “Serious commitment to dealing with this problem is sorely required, and I feel that we’ve come too far to just let go”, says Stangvik. “So we won’t”.
 You may have heard that it is often recommended to use the phrase “child abuse material” instead of “child pornography”, because the word “pornography” implies consent, which is never present in child sexual abuse. However, “child pornography” remains the most widely-used and well-known of the two phrases for now. In this article, we use both terminologies.
 Even though the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing reports that “users of child pornography on the Internet are more than likely to be in a relationship, to be employed, to have an above average IQ, to be college-educated, and to not have a criminal record”.
 P2P works by breaking files into chunks which are then passed from one computer to another, without ever transiting through a centralized server. On the receiving end, the downloader receives these pieces from different computers with different IPs.
 Freely translated from Norwegian to English by us.
 According to the Financial Coalition against Child Pornography.
 Freely translated from Norwegian to English by us.
 The various payment systems mentioned above – digital wallets, credit cards companies – also have their part to play, by refusing to authorize attempts at purchasing CAM.
 For the devastating effects of filmed sexual abuse on children, check out this heart-wrenching column in the Washington Post by Sarah Chang, a US prosecutor specialized in sexual abuse prosecution. Chang is forced to watch videos of children being sexually abused, and found that in almost of all the videos she’s watched, the children are completely silent, a frequent sign of psychological trauma.