THE DEEP WEB
The week of September 28, 2014

The darkest net

By Patrick Howell O'Neill

The police came for William Weber at his office.

Early on the morning of Nov. 28, 2012, 10 Austrian state police officers grabbed Weber from work, drove him home, and demanded that he let them into the house—or they’d bust the door down.

Weber, an IT administrator, ran seven exit nodes for Tor, the anonymity network made famous for its use by a diverse population including international activists, journalists, militaries, cybercriminals, and perhaps most infamously, child pornographers.

While almost everyone else on the Tor network is meant to be anonymous and protected, exit node operators are not. They can shoulder massive legal risks when handling 30 terabytes of data—which is what Weber said his nodes handled every day—from thousands of anonymous users and dozens of countries. They often shoulder that risk because they believe in Tor and the power it grants oppressed groups around the world. In Weber’s case, one of those thousands of users had used his node to look at or distribute child pornography. And the investigator’s trail went cold at Weber’s computer.

That left him in the crosshairs of the Austrian state police.

The police officers read private documents in his home and tore power cords out of walls and hardware, Weber said. They confiscated as evidence his guns (all owned legally), computers, consoles, and an arsenal of electronics.

In July 2014, Weber was sentenced to three years probation for abetting the spread of child pornography. He faced as many as 10 years in prison. The raid was one battle in a diffuse and complex worldwide war that has raged around online child pornography for over three decades, ever since the illicit material started to find its way online.

The Justice Department reported that 21 million unique IP addresses—the unique number that identifies which network your computer uses to connect to the Internet—traded child pornography in 2009 alone, 9 million of which were inside the United States. In 2011, police turned over 22 million images and videos to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to identify victims. Over 4,100 specific victims have been identified, but the majority go unknown.

In the department’s report, investigators and prosecutors around the country reported “dramatic increases in the number, and violent character, of the sexually abusive images of children being trafficked through the Internet.”

The children in front of the camera are getting younger, too. There are more toddlers. More infants. And much of the underground business that forms from their abuse, from the illicit media to the consumers and the pornographers themselves, bubbles towards the surface on the Deep Web’s child porn sites.

If you could somehow filter out all the explicit content and language relating to child sex, however, online pedophile pornography communities might seem astonishingly familiar. Members form friendships, rivalries, cliques, and all the layers of social complexities you would find in any other online community. For many pedophiles, these websites are the only places in the world where they feel they can be themselves without fear of reprisal.

I wanted to learn about these shunned societies: how they worked, who lived within them, and how they formed in the first place.

Targeting popular pedophile forums focusing on discussion—not image or video sharing—I met some of the most highly visible pedophiles online. Despite initial paranoia, the community was surprisingly trustworthy. Pedophiles gained significant confidence over recent years thanks to Tor’s perceived ability to stymie law enforcement.

A few said they were “disgusted” that anyone would talk to me, telling their peers that reporters “can’t be trusted.” They cursed anyone who cooperated with me and told me in no uncertain terms to get out.

In exchange for my honesty, however, the pedophile forums let me stay and talk on the condition that I not reveal their names or the forums’ location. Many said they just wanted an article that didn’t call for their heads. They asked to see an end to what they saw as media sensationalism and the start of something closer to what they saw as the truth. I made them no promises except that I would listen to what they had to say. So they began to talk about their secret lives. Their online lives.

This is what they told me.

Pushed underground

Almost every child pornography website has, at its center, ongoing discussions about the moral, legal, and emotional defense of what they call “child love.”

Pedophiles will point to famous celebrities from bygone eras: Charlie Chaplin (who impregnated and married multiple teenagers), Edgar Allan Poe (who married his 13-year-old cousin and lied about her age), or Jerry Lee Lewis (who married his 13-year-old cousin). The names are passed along as proof that great men can love young children—and that, in turn, the modern persecution of pedophiles is a function of bad laws and puritanical society more than it is a legitimate effort to end a moral abhorrence.

Many of these laws are in fact very young. In the 1970s, you could walk into a local red-light shop and find child pornography in the pages of glossy magazines sitting right next to adult pornography. In fact, one of the Western world’s greatest taboos has only been banned in the U.S. for 31 years.

New York passed the nation’s first law against child porn in 1977, followed a year later by a similar measure at the federal level. British Parliament passed the Protection of Children Act in the same year. Taken together, these laws began to push child pornography underground. By 1982, the New York Times called the world of child pornography “closed, clandestine,” small, and most significantly, shrinking.

The children in front of the camera are getting younger, too. There are more toddlers. More infants.

Child porn advocates didn’t disappear without a fight, though. Shortly after the law was implemented, Paul Ferber, the owner of an adult bookstore in Manhattan, was charged for selling to an undercover police officer two films of young boys masturbating. Far from proclaiming his innocence, Ferber claimed the sale was protected by the First Amendment and took the state to court.

Ferber’s lawsuit marched up the rungs of the federal court system until it landed at the feet of the Supreme Court in 1982. The court’s decision was unanimous: Banning child pornography did not violate the First Amendment right to free speech. The court then expanded the breadth of the law, banning the selling and possession of the material, in addition to its production.

“In recent years, the exploitive use of children in the production of pornography has become a serious national problem,” Justice Byron White argued. Such things possess so little value that “any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.”

Pushed out of easy brick-and-mortar businesses, child porn quickly moved to the nascent technology and communities of cyberspace.

Cybergenesis

“Pedophiles have been online as long as there was something called ‘online,’” RedGerbil, a member of one popular anonymous Deep Web pedophile forum, told me. “Pedophiles are part of every community. Even before the Internet there were pedophiles contacting each other through bulletin board systems. Digital images were exchanged as soon as it was possible to exchange them.”

That meant using technology so rudimentary it has largely been forgotten in the era of ubiquitous high-speed Internet, with HD streaming movies and split-second downloads.

Back then, a user would use a phone line and a modem to dial into what was known as a Bulletin Board System. This was the primitive ’net, a single-celled organism compared to the modern Internet’s highly evolved and complicated structure. Instead of phoning into a network of computers, you called into a single server that provided you no access to any other others. Downloading text was relatively slow and images came at what today would feel today like a crawl. But this was the beginning of a tech revolution that would change the world—and make spreading child porn easier than ever before.

cbbs

CBBS (computerized bulletin board system), the first of its kind. Photo via Mac Life

It may be difficult to imagine in the heavily policed cyberspace of today, but law enforcement had a relatively infinitesimal presence on the Web in the ’80s and ’90s. Many digital pioneers had decades to forge their own way on the early ’net, out in the open and with little mind for laws. Child pornography found a beachhead.

Bulletin Board Systems were so important to the birth of the online child pornography community that the term remains in heavy use today, even if the technology itself is long gone. The term BBS is so “strongly associated with child pornography,” according to one study, that nine out of the top 10 BBS-related Web searches are directly related to child pornography including terms such as “preteen BBS.”

Eventually, however, the BBS gave way to a more powerful technology. Whereas a BBS was generally run off of a single server for relative geographic locals, a technology called Usenet was open to the entire world. It operated with a decentralized global network, through which anyone with a connection, anywhere in the world, could post a message. There was no limit to its use. Pedophiles adapted to the new tech quickly.

“Usenet was the place to be,” wrote KnightShoe, another pedophile who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity. Usenet was, in a few key ways, similar to today’s Reddit in that it was divided into different areas of interest, called “newsgroups” (which are comparable to subreddits), and accessed by millions of readers.

Also like Reddit, Usenet had moderators to keep forums in check, and these volunteers occasionally stirred up controversy for what users saw as prudish policies that verged on censorship. So in 1987, as part of a strike against these policies, civil libertarian activist John Gilmore and computer scientist Brian Reid created the alt.sex discussion group. By 1993, it had 3.3 million readers. Other alt groups, most notably alt.binaries, traded images and videos, including child pornography.

I wanted to learn about these shunned societies: how they worked, who lived within them, and how they formed in the first place.

“The one that I remember best was alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.pre-teen,” RedGerbil wrote. “At that time the majority of the stuff being posted was nudism or other outdoor nude photography, but there was also a mix of scanned copies of ’70s glossy magazine material featuring underage girls.”

There was little need to hide what they were doing. Even when hanging out in a public community indelicately titled “erotica.pre-teen,” online pedophiles felt safe and secure.

But Usenet wasn’t the only cutting-edge technology that would prove a boon to the pedophile community. Launched in 1988, a simple chat platform called IRC (Internet Relay Chat) made instantly communicating over the Internet easier than ever before, and it would eventually become one of the most important communication tools in the history of the Web. From the mid- to late ’90s, popular chat channels dedicated to trading child pornography were hosted on servers across North America and Europe.

“I recall days of old when Usenet and IRC was rife with child pornography, private trading and all manner of other things,” KnightShoe wrote, “the days of 56 Kbps modems waiting an age for material to download.”

For two decades, the online child pornography trade flourished with little thought of the laws that forbade it. The relatively young and lawless Internet age introduced countless pedophiles to a new, easy way of finding forbidden text, images, and video.

Operation Avalanche

In 1997, Texas-based programmer named Thomas Reedy launched a porn site called “Landslide Productions.” It might have blended into the thousands of other sites like it back then, if not for a small banner near the bottom of the home page. “Click here for child porn,” it read. A click took users directly into the site’s online child porn warehouse. A directory included sections like “children forced to porn,” “child rape,” “children of God,” and more.


Landslide, a CBC documentary on Thomas Reedy

Charging a $29.95 monthly rate, Landslide grew quickly to 300,000 subscribers across 60 countries. At its peak, it was a multimillion-dollar company.

It lasted only two years.

The bottom fell out in 1999, when massive credit card fraud by would-be customers caused the company to lose almost all payment options and collapse. The police, however, did not forget about Reedy. Two years later, he was investigated by three federal agencies simultaneously, then shortly arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 1,335 years in prison, though it was later reduced to 180 years (as if it matters at that point).

Almost every child pornography website has, at its center, ongoing discussions about the moral, legal, and emotional defense of what they call “child love.”

The raid was part of a broader offensive. Around 100 of Reedy’s alleged customers around the world were arrested as part of what the FBI dubbed “Operation Avalanche.”

In Avalanche’s wake, a network of 30 federally funded task forces were created to fight Internet crimes against children. This was the moment online child pornography finally emerged as a top law enforcement priority. And the effect was immediate.

In 1994, only 61 defendants were sentenced in federal court for child-pornography offenses, according to the New York Times. Compare that to 2006, when 2,526 suspects were referred to U.S. attorneys for child pornography offenses. Between 1996 and 2007, there was a 2,062 percent increase in child exploitation investigations throughout the FBI.

Those thousands of defendants rarely chose to risk trial.

“You can watch the [jury’s] expressions change. I saw one gentleman in the front row of the jury, I think it was No. 3, and I saw him lurch forward toward the defendant,” Jeff Fischbach, a forensic analyst who works with child pornography, told NPR. “It is handled like it’s radioactive.”

A new digital underground

While the heat turned up in one part of the world, the gravitational center of the online child pornography trade moved to Kiev, Ukraine. There, in the early aughts, a company named LS Studios—also known as Ukrainian Angel Studio—produced child pornography with a production value that led consumers to compare it to top-tier, legitimate pornography companies.

LS Studios was a credit-card-subscription-based service that produced hundreds of thousands of images and videos of over 1,500 individual young girls, attracting thousands of paying customers from around the world. From 2001 to August 2004, the studio operated like many above-board porno operations do today, producing about 80 collections.

The parents often profited from their children’s abuse, reportedly getting paid $10 to $40 per hour of shooting.

Ukrainian cops shut down LS Studios in 2004, but the material remains highly valued to this day. Many pedophiles still consider its pictures to be the gold standard of “child erotic modeling.” And LS Studio’s successful three-year run gave rise to a number of spin-off child-modeling agencies in Eastern Europe and Russia that continue to produce material that is traded to this day, largely beyond the reach of law enforcement anywhere.

That’s because simple possession of child pornography remains legal in countries such as Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Those relatively lax laws have made the region a constant, global center of child pornography production and trade. In addition to LS Studios, pedophiles began to use image-hosting websites to first trade non-nude pictures of minors and then exchange emails to swap outright child pornography.

“Child pornography was being swapped and collected online with the vigor and obsession usually found among baseball card enthusiasts,” Kurt Eichenwald wrote in the New York Times in 2005. Some of the most desired images, he wrote, depicted “girls from what experts believe was a European kindergarten in sexual encounters with adult men.”

One of the Western world’s greatest taboos has only been banned in the U.S. for 31 years.

As cybercrime became a higher global priority, police around the world cooperated more than ever. In 2001, American and Russian police shut down one of the era’s most infamous child pornography rings: Russia’s Blue Orchid, which openly sold videos of pre-adolescent Russian boys being raped. The operation against the studio resulted in investigations and arrests across the United States and Europe.

Back in the West, the Internet became increasingly dangerous for pedophiles. Police inundated popular services as undercover agents, instilling a profound sense of paranoia that still lingers. As a response, pedophiles moved back to older, decentralized technology. A key tenet of anti-censorship technology of all stripes, decentralization allowed child pornography to further spread out across the globe.

IRC, the chat system first created in the late ’80s, had become globally popular by the 2000s. Among child pornographers and their patrons, it was “the primary place for pedophiles to socialize and trade material,” according to RedGerbil. Decentralized peer to peer (P2P) file-sharing services like Napster or LimeWire—services most people were using to download things like pirated music and movie files—also became popular hubs for the trade. As average Internet connection speeds began to rise, high-quality videos became much more common.

IRC trading still exists today, but many pedophiles think police and vigilantes have saturated the old P2P networks, waiting to catch and identify any trader. “P2P still contains much child pornography today,” wrote KnightShoe, “but it’s nothing much more than a death trap for pedophiles now.”

If pedophiles had learned one thing over the past two decades, it was that they could always stay one step ahead of the cops—as long as they stayed one step ahead on new technologies.

The power of Tor

In October 2011, a small army of Anonymous hacktivists launched a cyberattack against the largest child pornography website that had ever existed: Lolita City, an infamous hidden website hosted on the Tor network. The goal of the offensive, which hinged on simple denial-of-service attacks, was to bring down the website, expose its users to the public and police, and put a dead scare into every pedophile on the planet.

It made sense that the largest site ever would have grown on Tor. The tool’s anonymizing technology, funded for the most part by the U.S. government, is used by activists to fight oppressive regimes, whistleblowers to communicate with journalists, militaries to conduct intelligence operations, and law-abiding individuals to avoid corporate and government surveillance. Take that technology and hand it over to child pornographers, and you suddenly have an almost revolutionary freedom.

“We were driven underground,” one pedophile told The Kernel. And underground is where they flourished.

There’s little to prepare a person for the first time they encounter a pedophile community like the one that existed on Lolita City. One June 2013 post was from an anonymous user who wished he could take medication “to cure this condition” of pedophilia. “I would pay any price to take that medication. Anybody here share same feelings?” A few minutes later, another poster lashed out, calling him a troll and urging him to leave the City and never come back.

Here are the titles of a few particularly popular threads as relayed to me by an anonymous source who frequented the website:

  • Points to make in debate when arguing pro adult/child sex
  • Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America. By Philip Jenkins
  • Manufacturing Victims: What the Psychology Industry Is Doing to People, by Dr. Tana Dineen
  • What Should the Age of Consent Be? How About 7?

In response to the last query, several users said the age of 7 was too high. Others said that all age of consent laws are wrong.

Pushed out of easy brick-and-mortar businesses, child porn quickly moved to the nascent technology and communities of cyberspace.

“I am sexually attracted to children younger than 7 so I would still want to interact sexually with such, but 7 seems like a realistic age for consensual sex. Children aren’t stupid, so why do governments, legislators, and ‘laws’ belittle them and call them stupid?!”

That’s the type of conversation that ran day in and day out at the forums. By 2011, Lolita City was the biggest child pornography website online. Operation DarkNet, the October 2011 operation by Anonymous, was a reaction not just to the pornography they were trading but to the community they were fostering.

The operation involved some of Anonymous’s most notable members. Hector Xavier Monsegur, a hacker media icon better known as Sabu, was one of #OpDarkNet’s commanding generals. Monsegur became an active FBI informant in August 2011, after pleading guilty to a dozen criminal counts, two months before #OpDarkNet launched. No one knows exactly who directed the cyberattacks against Lolita City, but the FBI was, at the very least, fully aware of them.

The operation began with an attack on the the Hidden Wiki, a launching point to many hidden websites on Tor. Anonymous, furious that the Hidden Wiki refused to remove the links to Lolita City, launched denial-of-service attacks that rendered the website unusable. From there, the hacktivists expanded their offensive to Freedom Hosting, the preeminent hosting service on Tor at the time, for refusing to cede its place as “host of the largest collection of child pornography on the Internet,” according to Anonymous.

The story was a big PR win for Anonymous, usually an extremely polarizing entity, with write-ups from media outlets as diverse as the Daily Mail and Ars Technica. The hackers aimed to disable all the sites involved or replace them by using phishing attacks targeting Deep Web pedophiles. IP logs yielded by the phishing were released and put on a map, ostensibly giving away the identity of 190 child porn traders.

Anonymous took a victory lap for all the world to see.

The extreme of the extreme

Acts of violence—even digital violence—often end in ways no one can predict. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that #OpDarkNet is a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences. To say the operation merely failed in accomplishing its goal would grossly underestimate the results. In many ways, Anonymous accomplished precisely the opposite of what it set out to do.

About a day after #OpDarkNet, the sites had returned. Rather than kill them, Anonymous had publicized them.

“It is our GOD given right that we can choose to have our sexual preferences for youth,” one pedophile wrote in a letter to Anonymous. “It is the same for any other porn community. It is not what we choose to become, it is who we are. You Anonymous aka #OpDarkNet do not have the right to censor us.”

By 2013, Lolita City boasted 15,000 members, 10 times the number registered in 2011, when the site hosted 100 gigabytes of media. By the early summer of 2013, it hosted nearly 10 times that amount, with 1.3 million images and videos. More pornography was being uploaded every minute.

Not only did the operation advertise Lolita City, it brought the power of Tor to a whole new audience of entrepreneurial pedophiles.

For two decades, the online child pornography trade flourished with little thought of the laws that forbade it.

Before it launched, #OpDarkNet was promoted heavily on 4chan, the famously anarchic forum where Anonymous has its roots. The call-for-action posts were designed to get people from around the globe to lend their computers in the attack. A 4chan user and pedophile who calls himself Lux spotted those posts. He had never heard of Tor or websites like Lolita City before, but he was offered an introduction by the impassioned hacktivists who had briefly dedicated themselves to bringing it all down. Lux began to post in various pedophile forums around the Deep Web. Before long, he was “hooked,” he told me.

Within a few years, Lux would go on to become one of the most infamous men in the world of Deep Web peodphiles. Lolita City was the biggest child porn hub on the Web, but it was hardly the only player. In fact, there are some child pornography websites and communities that even most pedophiles shun. And Lux created several of them.

Within the online culture of pedophiles is an even more extreme subculture known as HurtCore. HurtCore aficionados exalt in violent and realistic depictions of rape and sexual assault of underage subjects. Likely the biggest HurtCore site of all time, Lux’s “Hurt 2 the Core” lived on Tor.

Using hosting initially provided by Freedom Hosting but then spread out across multiple anonymous hosts, Lux created an empire of child pornography image-sharing services, forums, video streaming, and chatrooms simply called PedoEmpire. In just four months in early 2013, Lux’s suite of free services sites attracting thousands of users.

Here’s a picture of what your average Hurt2TheCore threads might look like. These titles were taken from the forum’s June 2013 index:

  • Producing kiddie porn for dummies
  • Toddler childporn star
  • Crying rape
  • Need ideas for blackmailed girl

kOUFbnm

The early days of H2TC

Although Lux said his pedophilia began in his teenage years, he’s been a member of the child pornography community only for the last three years.

“At first I felt ashamed in myself for being attracted to such a thing, but as time went on I slowly grew more accepting of myself,” he told me. “It wasn’t until I came across the Tor pedo community that I was able to truly feel comfortable with attractions.”

After chafing under the rules of another popular pedophile forum that forbade HurtCore, Lux launched his own website that allowed “complete freedom.” Incredibly, Lux claims he isn’t even a fan of hurtcore, rape, beastiality, and most of the other kinks often seen on H2TC.

“If anyone had ever done such a thing to any of the kids I know, I would put a bullet in their head,” he told me. “Given that, I still think that people who have interest in such things should have a place where they’re able to voice their opinions and desires.” Lux describes himself as a “strong believer in free speech.” He says most members are only describing fantasies and would “never dream of doing such acts in real life.”

In many ways, Anonymous accomplished precisely the opposite of what it set out to do.

For all his popularity among his own users, Lux inspires a singular kind of hate even from many other fellow pedophiles. The very fact that I exchanged emails with him brought hate mail to my inbox.

“‘Hurt 2 the Core’ is the only site that is advertised for hurtcore [on the Hidden Wiki],” an anonymous pedophile told me. “A few other sites may tolerate it to a limited extent, but most of the community hates anyone who hurts kids, and shuns those who have fantasies about doing so.”

At the start of June 2013, Lux’s PedoEmpire received up to 20,000 unique hits per day on weekends, Lux said. Hurt 2 the Core reported an average of 326 accounts registered and 160 posts made every day. His video site boasted 15,000 daily downloads. There’s no way to verify those numbers—though the site’s active forums proved it was a very busy hub of activity.

“Oh,” Lux said, adding one more stat to the list, “and about a dozen death threats every week. They’re always fun!”

“Child love”

In 2010, the founder of Lolita City wanted to host a question-and-answer session on Reddit. A victim of sexual abuse spoke up first.

“I’m one of those children who was used to give someone older than me an orgasm,” wrote the anonymous poster.

“I was given no choice. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t a dirty thrill. All I received was a tiny seed, buried deep inside. At first I didn’t understand what it was. Now I carry with me a tree. It is a tree that is made out of fear, and it’s branches touch all that I see. My life was destroyed, all for someone else’s orgasm. One day, if the tree keeps growing, it will tear me apart. No matter what you tell yourself, no matter what you think makes it all okay. I want you to know what you really are. You destroy lives.”

While pedophiles see a distinction between “child love” and HurtCore victims, the public often doesn’t. Anonymizing technology isn’t just a way to trade illegal files for pedophiles. It’s also a way to find acceptance and validation that the rest of the world won’t grant.

Anonymity is a powerful but far from impenetrable wall that pedophiles use against cops. But for those who have discarded their identity, the wall is indiscriminate. Anonymity can push away family and friends as well as authorities. It puts a barrier between those who can barely stand to think about a website like Lolita City, nevermind try to understand those who occupy it. The resulting loneliness leaves the Deep Web feeling utterly vital to many of its pedophile inhabitants.

“The issue we mainly have is being tarred with the same brush as everyone who would wish harm upon a child, something anathema to our ethos here,” wrote user Better253 at a text-only forum with thousands of members. The forum, which hosts no pornography of any kind, is dedicated to providing support and community to pedophiles who might otherwise feel alone.

At this particular forum, most users believe that “relationships between adults and minors can work in the long-term if the child consents to the activity, and leads the way in what to do given the occasional nudge in the right direction (and sometimes not),” one anonymous user explained.

In a community that is anti-censorship as a matter of existential necessity, outright violence toward children, like the kind that HurtCore fetishizes, is censored and condemned.

“We ‘pedophile communities’ don’t exist to simply trade child porn or sexy stories,” wrote user Avalanched. “When you have an orientation so reviled by society that you can’t come out to your most trusted friends and family, the value of being able to communicate with other people experiencing the same types of struggles cannot be understated. It literally keeps you sane.”

These discussions are part of the everyday discourse on this forum. Spend any amount of time amongst pedophiles and you’ll hear this question asked again and again: “How many of us are actually hurting children?”

Prosecutors and victims stress that viewing and sharing an image of rape or molestation is equivalent to abusing the child again.

When, for instance, a user brags in great detail about raping children, many commenters often wonder if the author is fantasizing, mocking or even a law enforcement agent trolling to discredit pedophiles or catch one who would share too many personal details.

“Importantly, a substantial proportion of child-porn users (perhaps the majority) do NOT engage in contact sexual offending with children,” wrote Dr. Bill Glaser, a psychiatrist interviewed at length for All Things Vice.

But even “just” looking at child pornography is not a victimless crime. Many of the victims are left with lifelong psychiatric scars that far outlast the rape itself. American law offers restitution to victims to cover psychiatric care, legal costs, and lost income. And there are other continued costs that the victims have to pay long after the camera has stopped filming. I spoke with several pedophiles who say it’s not rare for men to become obsessed with a particular child involved in pornography and then find their real identities on social networks. They told stories of Russians, for instance, stalking social networks like Vkontakte until they found and befriended the “models”—in reality, the unwilling sex abuse victims—they like most.

Victims of child pornography unwittingly become celebrities in an opaque subculture. Videos and pictures are traded like hot commodities: The rarer, the crazier, the more a trader can get in return.

Prosecutors and victims stress that viewing and sharing an image of rape or molestation is equivalent to abusing the child again. Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Marci Ellsworth asserts that viewing the material is “not, as the child pornography consumers sometimes argue, ‘victimless.’”

“The heinous nature of this offense should never be diminished by referring to it as ‘just pictures,’” Ellsworth said during the 2012 trial of child molester and child pornography producer. “The children portrayed suffer real and permanent damage for the rest of their lives, each and every time their exploitation is shared over the Internet.”

A study by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reveals that 79 percent of all victims are abused by adults they know and trust. Other numbers paint a stark, cold picture of just how the children are hurt: 76 percent of the images and videos involve prepubescent children with no signs of sexual maturation; 75 percent involve sexual penetration; 44 percent involve bondange or sadomasochism, while 20 percent involve urination and/or defecation; 10 percent star infants or toddlers. And 4 percent of the images contain bestiality.

Many viewers, especially those who preach child love, will search closely for signs of enjoyment and hints of a smile for the kids being raped on screen. For child hurt fetishists, those details either don’t matter or they’ll search for the exact opposite. But for the kids, there’s little they can do once the images hit the Web.

“I will never be able to have control over who sees me raped as a child,” one victim whose photos spread rapidly through cyberspace wrote in a letter to the court during the trial of her convicted abuser. “It’s all out there for the world to see and it can never be removed from the internet.”

The ongoing war

Late one August night in 2013, Timothy DeFoggi—the acting cybersecurity chief at the federal Department of Health and Human Services—began downloading child porn, something he’d apparently done many times in the past. He thought he was safe. He wasn’t.

Police swarmed his home as the data hit his network. Press reports said DeFoggi, who had been surfing the anonymous Web all night, had to be pried from his laptop. Until that moment, DeFoggi was a highly valued technology expert in the U.S. government. He nevertheless apparently believed that the Tor browser alone would be enough to protect him—but as Tor developers and the police who busted him that night will tell you, there’s no such thing as 100 percent security.

DeFoggi, who was found guilty in 2014 on three child-porn charges, was a regular at Deep Web pedophilia forums like PedoBoard, a hidden site that boasted 5,600 users and shared over 10,000 images of child pornography. Like many of its other users in the summer of 2013, DeFoggi had erroneously believed everything was normal.

In forums like Babies, Prepubescent Boys, Prepubescent Girls, Teenage Boys, and Teenage Girls, users were launching into their usual discussions: “How to lure a child in my car,” “Meeting other pedos in real life,” and “Do kids LIKE anal sex?”

But someone was watching.

Two weeks prior, the FBI had seized the board, which was operated from Omaha, Neb. Instead of shutting it down, they silently watched and managed it. The operation resulted in the arrest of 25 alleged pedophiles, including administrator Aaron McGrath, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the crime of engaging in a child exploitation enterprise. McGrath ran PedoBoard and other websites like PedoBook, a social network for pedophiles, from his home and the server farm he worked at.

The massive sting was a big red alarm to tech-savvy pedophiles. Despite the immense obstacles presented by Tor, law enforcement was continuing to work against their most popular websites. And occasionally the bureau was hitting hard.

According to legal documents, the FBI gained access to PedoBoard because McGrath left administrative accounts unprotected, leaving them open to takeover. From those accounts, they found the servers’ IP addresses. Combined with their admin access, they were able to use something called a Network Investigative Technique (NIT)—cop-speak for hacking using powerful malware that ranges from a remote access tool to a small beacon that lets authorities know exactly who and where you are.

At Lux’s popular Hurt 2 The Core forum, users discussed the PedoBoard sting and speculated about the machinations that made it work.

The fall of Freedom Hosting shook the world of child pornography, making it one of the most important law enforcement offensives ever.

“If you run a board for 2 weeks this can get you very interesting insights,” a user named angryExtremelgor wrote. “Not all Tor-users know to use it properly. With a bit of Javascript or other tricks you can get the ips and localisations.”

He was referencing powerful but little known ways that Tor could be compromised, allowing cops to grab the identity of Tor users as long as those users hadn’t updated their software quickly enough. The police wouldn’t have to hack the Tor network. Instead, they’d just need to take advantage of out-of-date versions of the Mozilla Firefox browser and its publicly available vulnerabilities.

The user’s comment proved prophetic.

On the morning of Aug. 3, 2013, every Freedom Hosting website went down. When several of the sites returned—including some of the most popular child pornography forums and trading posts—they were infected with Javascript exploits aimed at identifying visitors. The FBI has since taken credit for the attack.

The fall of Freedom Hosting shook the world of child pornography, making it one of the most important law enforcement offensives since 2001’s Operation Avalanche. The FBI has accused Irishman Eric Eoin Marques of running the service and clearing $1.5 million from over 100 hosted websites in the process. Marques is currently crawling his way through the Irish justice system where he is facing possible extradition to the U.S.

While the arrest of Marques and the compromise of Freedom Hosting may prove to be a major triumph for law enforcement, it’s merely one victory in a wider war. In March, a dozen American men running a Deep Web child pornography site with 27,000 members were arrested and charged as part of one of the largest child exploitation investigations in the history of the Department of Homeland Security.

Then in July, a whopping 660 alleged online child porn suspects—including, police say, “doctors, teachers, scout leaders, care workers, and former police officers”—were arrested in the United Kingdom by the National Crime Agency (NCA). The NCA’s director general refused to reveal the investigative methods that caught the suspects. Instead, he issued a warning.

“We want those offenders to know that the Internet is not a safe anonymous space for accessing indecent images, that they leave a digital footprint, and that law enforcement will find it”.

But for each child porn community law enforcement takes out, it seems another sprouts up. After a short period laying low following the fall of Freedom Hosting, its former customers started looking for—and finding—new hosts. Deep Web pedophiles who had been pushed underground time and again simply moved further away from sunlight. Several major forums have shut down while others have become invite-only. And with each new social network, from Vine to Snapchat, there’s an inevitable period where child porn circulates in some capacity.

The biggest child pornography website on the Deep Web is no longer Lolita City. In fact, with well over 50,000 active users, the Love Zone may be the biggest pedophile site of all time. It requires new members to provide hardcore child pornography as a rite of initiation before joining.

The Deep Web’s pedophiles possess, above all else, an unrelenting drive to continue. Many see pedophilia as a need, a genetic predisposition they cannot escape. When I asked why they continue despite the risks, a cacophony of replies came back with one common denominator: The anonymous Internet, they said, gives us our sanity.

For victims, however, it’s where their abuse never dies.

 

Photo by Jason Reed