Online Child Pornography Arrests: Video Conferencing and Online File Sharing Services Targeted by Federal Investigators
Posted on by Michael Lowe.
It’s incredibly easy to chat or share photos over the internet today – for free. Popularity skyrocketed for these online opportunities for business conferences as well as personal conversations with friends or family during the COVID Pandemic. Now, video conferencing and online file sharing services are commonplace and their popularity continues to grow. Read, “Videoconferencing app usage ‘hits 21 times pre-Covid levels’,” written by Guy Campos and published by AV Magazine on August 5, 2021.
What Are Video Conferencing and File Sharing Services?
Video conferencing and file sharing over the internet are different but complimentary services accessible by smartphone, laptop, or desktop computer using a variety of operating systems. Some are offered for a fee or subscription cost, but many are available at no charge to the user.
Video Conferencing Services
According to Investopedia, videoconferencing is defined as:
Video conferencing is an online technology that allows users in different locations to hold face-to-face meetings without having to move to a single location together. This technology is particularly convenient for business users in different cities or even different countries because it saves time, expenses, and hassles associated with business travel. Uses for video conferencing include holding routine meetings, negotiating business deals, and interviewing job candidates. When a video conference is held for informal purposes, it is called a video call or video chat.
For more, read “Video Conferencing,” written by Julia Kagan and published by Investopedia on June 02, 2022.
Popular free online video conferencing services include:
- Google Meet
- Microsoft Teams
File Sharing Services
Technopedia explains file sharing services as follows:
Online file sharing is the process of sharing a file with one or more users via the Internet. It enables sharing and accessing the file through an Internet connection from an Internet-based server or online data storage/sharing service. Online file sharing is also known as Internet file sharing, Internet file transfer and Web file transfer.
Online file sharing typically requires a file to be hosted or stored on a Web server or any Internet-enabled server. Once the file is stored on the server, it is generally assigned a unique URL. The end user can access the file through the unique URL.
Online file sharing can also be achieved through a cloud-based storage or collaboration solution that requires users to upload the file on the cloud server or a storage platform. End users can access, view, edit and download the file by logging into the server/application or directly through the file URL. The file can be accessed through the Internet, regardless of the geographical location of the user.
Popular free online file sharing services include:
- Google Drive
Online Gaming: Conferences and File Sharing
In addition to the usual video conferencing and file sharing services are services tied to online gaming, where gamers can chat with each other for free while playing. Platforms here include:
Gamers are often minors who are targeted for child pornography images or videos in free online services like Discord which their parents may not know as easily as they do things like Zoom or Google Drive. Read, “Video Games and Online Chats Are ‘Hunting Grounds’ for Sexual Predators,” written by Nellie Bowles and Michael H. Keller on December 7, 2019, by the New York Times.
FBI Focus on Child Pornography in Online Conferencing and File Sharing Services
The federal government is well aware of the availability and popularity of these new and evolving technologies because they provide avenues for the creation, promotion, marketing, distribution and/or sale of child pornography over the web.
The producers and consumers of child pornography operate in the shadows, and anonymous Internet networks such as Tor often allow them to carry out their illicit activities without fear of being unmasked and caught. Below is a glimpse of the enormity of the problem (compiled in a 2016 report to Congress by the Department of Justice called The National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction:
- The FBI’s analysis of one particularly egregious website on Tor found that it hosted approximately 1.3 million images depicting children subjected to violent sexual abuse. Analysis of these specific files identified at least 73 new victims previously unknown to law enforcement.
- NCMEC estimated that more than 26 million sexual abuse images and videos were reviewed by their analysts in 2015. Additionally, NCMEC reported that since 2002, more than 10,500 victims depicted in child pornography have been located and identified by law enforcement. According to NCMEC, 4.4 million CyberTipline reports were submitted in 2015.
- Between 2011 and 2014, researchers from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst looked at five of the most common peer to peer (P2P) networks used to trade child pornography. They estimated that three in 10,000 Internet users on these five P2P networks worldwide were sharing known child pornography in a given month. They also estimated there were 840,000 worldwide unique installations per month of P2P programs sharing child pornography, thus indicating a significant volume of new devices trading confirmed child pornography that connected to at least one of the P2P networks analyzed for the first time.
- An FBI investigation of a single website hosted on Tor had approximately 200,000 registered users and 100,000 individuals had accessed the site during a 12-day period.
Two Recent Examples of Federal Child Porn Arrests With Online Conferencing and File Sharing
The federal investigations into these internet sex crime activities are well-financed and coordinated, with arrests usually leading to serious sentencing and jail time.
Skype Video Conferencing and FaceFlow: 40 Years in Federal Prison
For instance, in March 2022, a 42-year-old Houston man was sentenced to 480 months (40 years) in a federal prison followed by 10 years on supervised release following completion of his prison term. He is also required to register as a sex offender in the federal database.
In this case, as described by the Justice Department in its news release, the defendant “posed as a 23-year-old male” on FaceFlow, a social media website, and began chatting with a 14-year-old female via Skype. They arranged to run away together. The defendant brought the girl to his Houston hotel room and residence, where she was quickly found and he was arrested.
The FBI obtained a search warrant allowing a search of the hotel room where the two were found and discovered “several documents and electronic devices which led to the discovery of a second out-of-state victim.” This victim, another minor female, had video-conferenced with the defendant in a sexual manner which had been recorded via Skype as well.
Freenet and Other File Sharing Programs: 90 Months in Federal Prison
The following month, after a federal jury trial, the DOJ reported that a Fort Bend defendant was sentenced to serve 90 months in federal prison followed by five years on supervised release following the completion of his prison term for the crime of receiving and possessing child pornography images and videos via the Freenet file sharing system as well as “other peer-to-peer file sharing programs in which the device’s user requested files with titles that were consistent with child pornography.” He will also have to register as a sex offender with the national federal sex offender database.
Here, federal investigators as part of Project Safe Childhood, accessed the dark web Freenet site where files are shared anonymously and tracked down the various IP addresses discovered to be requesting files from the file sharing system. Once they had identified the defendant through his IP address, law enforcement then obtained a federal search warrant allowing them to search the defendant’s home as well as his computer devices.
Thirteen different devices were made a part of the conviction here, with 380 videos and 12,762 images of child pornography forming the basis of the AUSA’s case, along with testimony from a forensics expert of “artifacts involving pornography search terms as well as other peer-to-peer file sharing programs in which the device’s user requested files with titles that were consistent with child pornography.”
Federal Child Pornography Investigations: Searching for Targets to Arrest, Getting Search Warrants
From a criminal defense perspective, the two key factors in these federal child pornography investigations involving free online video conferencing and file sharing services are (1) how the investigators find their targets for arrest and (2) how they obtain the images and videos via search warrants.
Law enforcement agencies work together, often in dedicated task forces, alongside federal prosecutors (AUSAs) to build cases based upon federal criminal statutes defining federal child pornography as a felony crime. For more, read our earlier discussions in:
- 10 Things To Know About Felony Child Porn Charges in Texas
- Federal Child Pornography Charges Often Involve Federal Surveillance of Online Communications, Personal Email Records, Stored Computer Files.
Significant time and money at the federal level has been dedicated to investigating and prosecuting online child pornography for several years now. As an example, read the January 2020 White House Executive Order 13903, entitled “Combating Human Trafficking and Online Child Exploitation in the United States” and the Department of Justice’s online site dedicated to its Project Safe Childhood.
Searching for Targets to Arrest
Accordingly, it comes as no surprise to an experienced criminal defense attorney here in Texas to learn that agents at the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, etc., have targeted someone for arrest on federal child pornography charges after locating them via online chat rooms where trust is built through an agent posing as someone else who eventually enters into conversations designed to locate or obtain through file transfer images or videos of child porn.
Of course, in some situations things are made easier for law enforcement through policies encouraging private employees to report suspected child pornography to law enforcement. See, e.g., the Southern Methodist University’s employee “Duty to Report Images of Child Pornography,” in compliance with the Texas Mandatory Reporting Law, Article 110.102 of the Texas Business and Commerce Code.
Search Warrants to Get Devices and Documentary Evidence (Images, Videos)
After someone has been identified, then the agents will go to a judge to obtain a search warrant allowing them to enter the targeted individual’s home or residence, and to search that place as well as any computer devices they find there. The warrant may allow them to take these devices into their possession, custody, and control. The devices can include the individual’s phone, tablet, laptop, and other devices capable of accessing the internet or storing digital information.
For more, read:
- Electronic Surveillance Under Federal Law: Criminal Defense Considerations in 2021
- Illegal Search Warrants: Challenging the Underlying Affidavit
- When Police Enter Your Home (Or the FBI and ICE) Here in Texas.
Criminal Defense: Child Pornography Arrest Involving File Sharing or Video Conferencing
Accordingly, the criminal defense attorney’s focus will be upon both aspects of the federal investigation: how the individual was found (the targeting) and how the documentary evidence (the images or videos) was obtained. These cases can be complex, necessitating a coordinated effort with professional investigators and computer forensic experts. Psychiatrists or psychologists may be needed, too, especially for any sentencing phase determinations.
Search warrants will be given special legal scrutiny in these matters. The due process implications of agents pretending to be someone other than they are in the course of communication on the web must be evaluated in detail, as well. Read:
As for the charges, there may be many different charges asserted by the AUSA under 18 U.S.C. §2252. Charges may be included in the indictment that tie to possession of certain images or videos, as well as those pertaining to transmission of the files and possession of obscenity.
Sentencing concerns must be evaluated, too. For instance, the age of the child or children involved can be an aggravating factor under the United States Sentencing Guidelines (USSG), and the age of the accused may be a mitigating factor as well. For more here, read:
- Federal Sentencing Guidelines on Federal Child Pornography cases
- When Sexting Is A Crime In Texas
- Child Pornography Arrests: Lessons From The Ex-Subway Pitchman’s Sentencing.
Anyone who is being investigated or is facing criminal charges for child pornography involving video conferencing or online file sharing services is wise to obtain criminal defense representation as soon as possible. Having an advocate alongside that is experienced in these types of matters for effective and zealous representation in both plea negotiation, sentencing hearings, and criminal jury trials, is imperative.
For more, read:
- Fort Worth Federal Judge John McBryde Child Porn Downward Departure Sentence
- Encounters with Law Enforcement: A Criminal Defense Perspective
- Internet Sex Crimes: Criminal Defense Overview of Texas Online Sexual Offenses
- Texas Sex Offender Deregistration Synopsis: Overview and Steps for Name Removal
- Sex Crimes in Texas: How Soon Do You Need to Call a Criminal Defense Lawyer?
For more information, check out our web resources, read Michael Lowe’s Case Results, and read “Probation In A Federal Child Porn Case: Case Study by Defense Attorney Michael Lowe.”
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