Bill seeks to double FY 2000 budget to fight child porn

A House bill introduced this month would double the Customs Service's budget to expand a lab and provide more information technology training for agents to investigate child pornography on the Internet.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas), would authorize $20 million over the next four years for Customs' CyberSmuggling Center, which also investigates other international crimes involving computers. Most of the money will be used to hire more agents, but Gene Weinschenk, director of the center, said he also wants to upgrade his lab with the latest technology.

"We're trying to build [the budget] so we can replace it every year," he said. Meanwhile, Weinschenk wants agents to attend two or three "refresher" courses annually following their initial five to six weeks of training. With more money, Customs also would be able to train state, local and foreign law enforcement officials.

Investigators learn how different computing platforms and networks work, as well as how to recover and preserve data from confiscated systems for evidence in court. In one recent case, Weinschenk said an international smuggling ring was found to be using codes invented by the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency, the KGB, to encrypt the images they were transmitting online.

Lampson said his bill would help to raise public awareness about online child pornography. He said he thinks there is as much support for the measure from Congress and the White House as there was last year, when lawmakers earmarked $2.5 million for the center.

Parry Aftab, a lawyer and author who heads the Cyberangels, a volunteer group that promotes child safety online, said Customs needs to be "on equal footing with the bad guys" when it comes to IT. Aftab and her group work closely with Customs, passing on tips about Internet child pornography sites.

Child pornography has surged with the growth of the Internet, Aftab said. Customs is already a world leader in its ability to track and prosecute offenders, but the problem "is the little baby Godzilla. When it grows up, we won't be able to tackle it. We'll have to give them $50 million a year in five years," she said.

Last year, Customs obtained 220 indictments against individuals in the United States on child pornography charges—about half the number of people indicted on similar charges in the previous five years altogether. To date, Customs has won a conviction in every case, except for some still pending in court.

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