FBI turning Internet on pornographers

As the Internet has emerged as a tool that child pornographers and pedophiles can use to zero in on their victims, it also has emerged as a tool that the FBI can use to zero in on the bad guys.

The FBI, in fact, has beefed up its investigations into online pedophiles and child pornographers during the past year — increasing its number of online task forces from one to 10 and nabbing scores of criminals. In fact, since the agency started chasing online pedophiles and child pornographers in 1995, it has arrested 478 people nationwide, with 405 of those arrests leading to convictions, said Pete Gulotta, a special agent in the FBI's Baltimore field office.

But as the FBI expands the number of field offices investigating Internet-related crimes against children, coordination becomes key. Technology firm R.M. Vredenburg and Co., for example, announced this week that the FBI has chosen the company to provide software that the agency will use to coordinate online investigations.

"The software allows us to make sure that we're not all working the same case," said Gulotta, who explained that FBI task forces should emerge at all 56 FBI field offices in coming years, increasing the number of agents working on cases and prompting a greater need to coordinate agents' activities

Working as part of the FBI's Innocent Images initiative, the agents enter Internet chat rooms they suspect to be hangouts for pornographers and pedophiles. They pose as minors and wait for the bad guys to bite.

"Travelers," as Gulotta calls them, bite by suggesting a live meeting with the people they believe are minors. When the bad guy shows up to the meeting, agents arrest him, and the case is handed off to a U.S. Attorney's Office for prosecution. "Transmitters," meanwhile, bite by offering to sell or pass along child pornography. About 75 percent of the cases the FBI investigates involve transmitters, Gulotta said.

Vredenburg will provide the FBI with its HighView product suite, an off-the-shelf records and document management system that will enable users to capture, index, store, analyze and retrieve a variety of documents and data in different formats, including text, image, audio and video. Gulotta said the new system would be used as more of a coordination tool for agents rather than as a central repository for evidence collected online.

But Vredenburg vice president of information technology Larry Den said the system could evolve into the FBI's central system for Innocent Images if agency officials want it to be. He said the new system will enable agents to continue to store evidence in existing databases but will automate the procedures and processes they go through as they conduct online investigations, offering electronic pointers such as who's investigating what and where electronic records have been stored. The system also will store the online names of suspects grouped with which agents have had contact with the them, helping agents sort through aliases that suspects use as they cruise the Internet.

The new system will be even more helpful as more FBI offices participate, working with state and local governments, as well as the U.S. Postal Service and the U.S. Customs Service. As the agency has added field offices to the Innocent Image program, the number of cases initiated has grown from 706 in fiscal 1998 to more than double that in fiscal 1999, according to Gulotta. "You've got more lines in the water. And the more lines in the water, the more fish you're going to catch," Gulotta said.

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