She looks like a 9- or 10-year-old girl. But “Sweetie”, as her handlers nickname her, is no ordinary child. Rather she’s a cutting edge animation employed by a private sector children’s rights activist group in the Netherlands — Terre des Hommes — in an effort to track down and convict child predators on the internet.
I. To Catch a Predator Goes Avatar
In today’s era of increased law enforcement presence on the internet and vigilante efforts like Dateline NBC’s infamous To Catch a Predator, sexual predators in Europe, the U.S., and other nations have increasingly turned to trying exploit children in impoverished regions in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
There’s an alarming rise of children in these regions being pushed into sexual slavery, forced to perform sex acts for adults from other countries who are willing to pay cash to satisfy their deviant urges. Particularly prevalent is so-called “webcam child sex tourism”.
“Sweetie” is no ordinary child. She’s an avatar used by Dutch operators to prey on international child sexual predators. [Image Source: Terre des Hommes]
Sweetie lures those predators. Created by a Dutch 3D modeling house Lemz and animated with the help of technology from Brekel 3D’s motion capture technology, the avatar masquerades under the guise of a child sex slave from the Philippines.
The government of the Philippines acknowledges that local sex slavery via family members or criminal syndicates is a major problem; it recently estimated as many as 1,000 children were forced to become webcam sex workers. Patronizing them are the roughly 750,000 global pedophiles that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates to be online at any given time.
These predators are highly active and hard to catch, as many route their traffic through The Onion Router (TOR), a privacy protection technology that funnels internet connections through a complex web of interconnects, making them difficult to trace. As a result advocacy groups and law enforcement alike, have largely been forced to lure predators in with fake interactions, in order to get them to spill identifying information and catch them in the act. Sweetie is the perfect tool for that kind of sting.
II. Caught in the Act
Deployed in 2013, the animated character was controlled by human operators, who would first converse with predators in chat rooms. Once predators agreed to wire a fee — typically $20 USD — and provide their Skype address, the avatar would briefly appear in a video chat, obtaining video of the suspect. Operators could use a variety of realistic animations, including the CG child reaching for the camera, pretending to adjust it, turning her head, or staring attentively with slight humanlike head movements.
Terre des Hommes operated the avatar for 10 weeks in 2013, setting up a command center at a warehouse in the Netherlands. During that time, 20,000 predators contacted the avatar. Ultimately as many as 1 in 20 of these predators provided personally identifiable information or even engaged in explicit web chats with the avatar. In total, more than 1,000 people — mostly men — from 72 different countries were identified in the operation.
The personally identifiable details provided by the suspects were passed to The International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) and other police agencies. Many of the predators involved had a history of real-life child sexual abuse. And more alarming still, many appeared to have young children of their own, according to public profiles on Facebook, Inc.’s (FB) network and other social websites.
A pedophile exposes himself to activist investigators during the 10 week sting by Terre des Hommes.
[Image Source: Terre des Hommes]
The sting led to arrests in the UK, U.S., Canada, Australia, Belgium, Ireland, and South Africa, according to a post on Lemz’s website.
While courts have had a tough time using the evidence to score convictions. The European branch of INTERPOL’s (Europol) cybercrime unit — the European Cybercrime Centre — for example, expressed concern that courts would rule that the scheme was entrapment. The center’s director Troels Ørting Jørgensen praised the project’s efforts to raise awareness, but stated:
[Child abuse] is probably the worst of all violations. So if we arrest people for this we have to make sure it’s true, and it’s best to include professionals.
Ultimately, the Terre des Hommes had to settle in most cases for public shaming of the predators. Part of that campaign involved publishing a film about the predators, a project that won 12 “Golden Lions” and one “Grand Prix” at the Cannes Film Festival in France.
III. Identifying the Predators
Hans Guyt, head of special projects at Terre des Hommes, commented in an interview with the Australian newspaper The Age:
[Webcam child sex tourism] is a new cottage industry. It’s fuelled by poverty at home and predators around the world with $100 to spare to watch a child get raped. Our objective was to show how easy it is to identify these predators. And we exploded a hand grenade.
His team worked with a U.S. Alexandria, Virginia-based advocacy group — the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCAR) — to identify predators using Microsoft Corp.’s (MSFT) PhotoDNA software. With the help of PhotoDNA, even if the predator uses TOR, activists can often identify predators.
While legal issues remain, the campaign has just passed one key hurdle, scoring its first sex crime conviction in Australia.
IV. Convicted Predator Had a Long History of Crimes Against Children
The convicted child predator was one of 46 Australians caught in the sting. Some suspects were let off with warnings and the public shame of knowing that their attempt might be published online. But police pushed to prosecute some of the more habitual offenders, including the man who was just convicted.
Brisbane native Scott Robert Hansen, 37, had already been convicted of several sex crimes against children in Australia. He was known as a “serial flasher”. His first arrest was in 1995, when he repeatedly exposed himself to young girls riding on local school buses. He would stand in front of the buses’ windows and expose his genitals to the young victims.
The convicted Brisbane man who exposed himself to sweetie had already traumatized many local children, exposing his genitals to them, and even trying to kidnap one child. [Image Source: Lenz]
In 1999, he was again convicted of willful exposure, for flashing girls age 11 to 13. After a brief stint in jail, he was released. Things took an even more disturbing turn in 2009 when he tried to abduct an 8-year-old who was walking home from school in Kallangur, a suburb of Brisbane. He reportedly approached the child — one of three young siblings walking together — naked and put his hand on her leg. He also tried to muffle the child’s screams with his hand. Ultimately she escaped before the situation took a more tragic turn.
Searching his computer, police found over 20,000 pornographic images and videos of nude children or children being subjected to sex acts. Prosecutors warned the Brisbane District Court that the suspect’s behavior was “escalating”. They stated:
As time goes by [the defendant] is getting more serious.
Still, the court opted to go relatively easy on him, sentencing him to only 18 months in prison for his sex crime and the abduction/rape attempt. Out of prison last year, he was back at it, trolling the internet for an Asian child sex slave to expose his genitals to.
He found Sweetie.
Published chat logs detail an explicit conversation he had with the avatar’s operator:
Hansen: hi, u really 9yo
Hansen: wanna chat or cam with older?
Hansen: I like asian chicks, are you … for action?
Hansen: I’m naked, ever seen a guy naked?
The Australian predator then turned on his webcam and carried out an explicit conversation with the avatar in which he was nude and exposing his genitals as he pleasured himself.
Sweetie’s operators said the chats left them having trouble sleeping at night.
[Image Source: Terre des Hommes]
An operator from Terre des Hommes told BBC News:
[Hansen] was probably not the most serious, not even among the most serious. He was very direct [though]. At one point he asked us to get our fictional eight-year-old sister involved. It was very difficult to go to sleep at night after interacting with someone like [him].
The good news it that the Brisbane Court convicted him for his actions and sentenced him to two years in prison. The bad news is that he already had served eight months while awaiting sentencing, so was eligible to be released. He reportedly will undergo an “intensive” sex offender rehabilitation program under house arrest.
V. Most React Positively to Conviction, But Some Are Mad
Still Terre des Hommes hailed the outcome as a victory. Project leader Hans Guijt commented, “This is a major breakthrough in the fight against this form of child exploitation.”
Raffaele Salinari, president of Terre des Hommes International Federation, remarked, “We are pleased with this great result, as the judge considered that the offense was similar to what could have been made against a real child.”
The project is still working on efforts with law enforcement in the U.S., Canada, UK, and other regions, in hopes of sending more child predators behind bars. The UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) has been notified of 110 men in the UK who tried to contact Sweetie. It says its investigation of those men is “active” and that some have been identified.
It is unclear how many predators were identified by Terre des Hommes and arrested by American authorities.
Not everyone is happy with these efforts. Pulp crime novelist John Grisham recently blasted pedophile prosecutors, arguing people who view naked images of children for sexual gratification aren’t criminals.
We have prisons now filled with guys my age. Sixty-year-old white men in prison who’ve never harmed anybody, would never touch a child, But they got online one night and started surfing around, probably had too much to drink or whatever, and pushed the wrong buttons, went too far and got into child porn.
There’s so many of them now. There’s so many ‘sex offenders’ – that’s what they’re called – that they put them in the same prison. Like they’re a bunch of perverts, or something; thousands of ’em. We’ve gone nuts with this incarceration.
I have no sympathy for real pedophiles. God, please lock those people up.
But so many of these guys do not deserve harsh prison sentences, and that’s what they’re getting.
The interview drew harsh criticism from many advocacy groups who note that even digital consumption of child porn often leads to real world assaults, as it already had in the case of the convicted Australian predator.
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