Phuket Gazette: Pedophiles flourishing on the Web

– World news selected by Gazette editors for Phuket’s international community

Pedophiles invade ordinary websites to sell child porno
Phuket Gazette / News Wires
PHUKET: Pedophiles are operating hundreds of websites which appear to be ordinary web shops but are actually being used to distribute and even sell photos and videos of young children being sexually abused, according to a report released in the United Kingdom late yesterday.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) – the UK charity whose experts work to track and trace child pornography on the Internet – said in its annual report that pedophiles are finding new ways to distribute the illegal content. A new trend has emerged in which criminals disguise illegal websites to appear as if they host only legal content.

“We received reports to our Hotline by online users who have stumbled across these sites,” said IWF Chief Executive Susie Hargreaves. She said the websites show only legal content when they are accessed directly, but a predetermined digital path leads users to a section which features videos of children being sexually abused.

According to IWF, criminals are exploiting a legitimate web development technique commonly used on shopping websites which remember visitors when they return. As a result, the websites operated by criminals will show only legal content when accessed directly but show child pornography when they are accessed via a particular gateway (referrer).

When IWF first started receiving reports from people who had accidentally stumbled across the illegal content, analysts were puzzled to find only websites which appeared to be hosting only legal content.

“The reports we receive by the public can be quite detailed and these reporters were sure of what they had seen,” Hargreaves said. “Our analysts investigated further and discovered that a legitimate web development technique was being used to disguise the website from all those who had not followed a particular digital path to access it.”

The IWF has been investigating these websites since 2009 and has since identified 998 unique sources of commercial child pornography, each with a distinctive name and brand.

“Each of the websites is a gateway to hundreds or even thousands of individual images or videos of children being sexually abused,” the IWF said in its annual report.

In addition to making the child pornography websites more difficult to find, criminals can also use these sites to acquire legitimate business services, such as banking services, if the website appears to host only legal content when directly assessed. This allows the criminals to ‘trick’ other companies into providing their services for what is actually a criminal enterprise.

This method allows child pornography websites to be supported by layers of payment mechanisms, content stores, membership systems and advertising. “Payment systems may involve pre-pay cards, credit cards, ‘virtual money’ or e-payment systems, and the customers may be required to carry out transaction across secure webpages, text messages, or email,” the IWF reports.

But despite such illegal websites being an emerging trend, the IWF said its analysts have become adept at spotting them and have developed a technique to circumvent the digital footpath to gain access to them.

“We are now working with other Hotlines to enable them to access these sites to expedite their removal,” the organization said, noting that it came across 579 of such sites in 2011 alone, although none of them was based in the United Kingdom.

According to the IWF report, nearly all child pornography is hosted on servers in North America and Europe, including Russia. Image hosting websites are most likely to be abused, with 45 percent of child pornography found there, followed by banner sites (12 percent), social networking websites (12 percent), generic websites (10 percent), and file hosts (6 percent).

— Phuket Gazette Editors

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