Child Pornography: How is it Investigated?

Mar 12, 2014

Fighting the creation and distribution of child pornography is a global battle with a Virginia task force prominent in the field. There is a process of stopping child sexual exploitation. 


On any given day news feeds will include stories of people being arrested on child pornography charges. While child porn existed long before the internet, high-speed global connections have made the distribution of it as easy as watching legal movies or downloading family pictures. 

 Sergeant Stephen Anders of the Southern Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children Task force: “You’re not likely to just stumble upon it. Even if you’re looking for adult pornography you’re not going to stumble across and accidentally see child pornography.  However, if you want to find child pornography it is very easy to find it” Ander’s job, along with the full Task Force, is to act on information that can come to them from a myriad of sources: often from leads generated online from watchdog groups and providers of image hosting or file sharing sites. Initially an IP address is sought that provides an area or region where the computer used in the activity may be located. Then, if warranted, the investigation expands: “Once a subjected is identified as engaging in child exploitation then the legal process--subpoenas, court orders, search warrants--can be obtained and served on service providers. Say, they’re using Verizon internet, we would then serve lega process to them and Verizon would let us know which customer of theirs was using that IP address.” Then comes the knock on the door. Sergeant Anders says for them it’s not usually wholly tactical with guns drawn because their initial search for a device not a person: “We’re there to try to locate a device and the evidence. It could be any number of people using a computer that may be doing it, it could be someone that is stealing internet, say unsecured wireless, it could be any number of scenarios so we don’t want to go in guns drawn and putting everyone on the ground, creating a big scene. We don’t want to draw attention to what’s going on we try to be very low key. all we’re looking for is the device or devices.” The next step is to secure the devices found--computer hard drives, flash drives, mobile devices, old floppy disks, cell phones and MP3 players--and conduct a forensic search for child pornography. The technicians can recover files even if deleted and wiped: “Just deleting doesn’t make it go off your computer.  The guys here in the forensics lab routinely recover deleted files and things that people thought were gone.”  Once the evidence has been documented the case goes to the prosecutor. In 2012, the Southern Virginia Internet Crimes against Children Task Force investigated 1,374 cases resulting in 180 arrests. In 2013 the cases jumped to 2, 118 with 216 arrests. Anders says reasons for the jump in cases come from a growing broadband network allowing faster file sharing and from increased manpower and better forensics tools.