Riegel: The challenges of fighting child pornography

Literally every other week, on average, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office issues a press release announcing the arrest of someone, or several people, on charges of child pornography.

No question, the ambitious AG is well-versed in the art of self promotion, and it clearly behooves his political interests to make the public aware of the work his office is doing to crack down on some of the most reprehensible criminals in our midst.

But it’s important to give credit where credit is due, and the people in Landry’s office are truly fighting the good fight on the front lines of a battle that is growing bigger by the day—and becoming ever harder to win.

Unfortunately, few people outside of law enforcement circles and special interest groups that advocate for exploited children seem to know very much about the issue of child pornography or care about the extent to which it is a problem.

How much of a problem? Huge. Incidents of child porn over the past decade have increased more than 1,000%, according to some national estimates. In 2015 alone, analysts at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reviewed 26 million child sex abuse images, according to an FBI report published the following year. That same report analyzed one particularly egregious site on the dark web and found 100,000 users had accessed it in just a single, 12-day period.

Closer to home, the numbers are less staggering but no less alarming. Since Landry took office in January 2016, more than 212 perpetrators have been arrested in the state on more than 10,000 counts of child pornography.

In the past six weeks alone, Landry’s office has made six separate arrests of 13 men (they’re almost always men) on more than 1,000 counts on child porn, including production, distribution and possession.

I recently sat down with Landry and the two top investigators in his office who deal with cybercrimes—Brian Brown, supervisory special agent for the AG’s cybercrime unit, and Corey Bourgeois, who heads the Louisiana unit of Internet Crimes Against Children, a multistate task force that includes more than 3,500 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies nationwide.

“When I started doing this in 2009, child pornography meant 14-year-olds. Now, we see babies in diapers.”

—BRIAN BROWN, supervisory special agent, attorney general’s cybercrime unit

Bourgeois and Brown have been on the job for more than a decade, and over that time they’ve seen some troubling trends. For one, there’s the sheer increase in the amount of child porn out there. With the advent of the internet in the early 1990s, the nascent industry exploded overnight. With the proliferation of the smartphone over the past decade, it’s gotten exponentially worse.

As the material has become easier to produce and access, the user base has increased and the profile of the average perpetrator has become impossible to determine. No longer does a creepy guy in a trench coat have to slink off to a dirty bookstore or send away to a black market mail order company for his fix. Today, the vilest of content is available to anyone with the click of a button, and Brown and Bourgeois have made arrests in this state that span the socioeconomic spectrum—college students, police officers, fire fighters, teachers, attorneys, doctors and construction workers, to name a few.

“We can’t even profile the producers anymore,” Brown told me. “Two months ago, we rescued four children from a 17-year-old who was making videos on his phone.”

Perhaps the most troubling thing Brown and Bourgeois have noticed is that the nature of the material has become more violent and graphic, and the victims, sadly, much younger.

“When I started doing this in 2009, child pornography meant 14-year-olds,” Brown says. “Now, we see babies in diapers.”

Just let that sink in for a minute.

As the trends have become more troublesome, the challenges of fighting child pornography have become greater. While technology makes it easier to produce, procure and spread child pornography, it also makes it more difficult to break the encryption codes, and no one in the IT industry is offering to help.

“With the new Apple operating system, even if we can break in, all we’ll get is a bunch of encrypted letters we don’t understand,” Bourgeois says. “And Apple isn’t going to unlock a system for us just because a child died. It’s killing us as law enforcement.”

It’s also hard to bring perpetrators to trial. In most cases the district attorney cuts a deal and the perpetrator pleads to a reduced charge, though Bourgeois says sentencing laws in the state are pretty tough and judges have little leeway but to enforce them.

Then there are budgetary challenges. ICAC is funded by the feds. Landry’s office and its cybercrime unit by the state. Neither has adequate resources to do as much as it needs or wants to fight the explosion of child pornography, but those in the trenches are committed, and it’s heartening to see their dedication.

It’s also chilling to hear their stories because what they are fighting every day raises so many questions.

How can we, as a society, allow this to go on in our midst? Why are we not more alarmed? What are we doing to crack down on the more than $12 billion “adult porn” industry, which many believe leads to and helps feeds the sinister child porn industry? Who are these young victims, and what are we doing to help those we are able to save from their unspeakable fate?

There are no easy answers, but it’s time we get serious about searching for solutions. The #metoo movement shows how swiftly this country can mobilize around an important cause. What could be more important than protecting children?  

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