Advanced technology helps fight child pornography

Computer forensics try to hold the pace with growing crimes.
Thursday, August 26, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:20 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

On Feb. 11, 2003, detectives from the Boone County Sheriff’s Department raided the home of Columbia resident Frank W. Petering, seizing computers, floppy disks and documents. Officers confiscated an estimated 80,000 pornographic images depicting children, from infants to teenagers, engaged in sexual conduct.

On Monday, Petering was convicted of promoting child pornography in what is believed to be the largest case of its kind in county history. Petering’s apprehension offers a glimpse at how law enforcement is taking advantage of legal and technological advances to combat the exponential growth in the distribution of child pornography.

Sheriff’s Department Detective Andy Anderson said investigative techniques and advances in the field of computer forensics struggle to keep pace with the proliferation of child pornography on the Internet.

“The Internet allows further communication between perpetrators,” Anderson said. “This problem is exploding in Boone County and around the country.”

Increasingly, law enforcement agencies are using undercover officers to lure offenders into transmitting illegal images and video over the Internet. Boone County Assistant Prosecutor Richard Hicks, who prosecuted Petering, said investigators now routinely visit chat rooms, posing as consumers of child pornography.

“Usually, they will receive quasi-legal pictures, but they usually won’t receive illegal stuff until they send material back, like a trade,” Hicks said. “Agents can’t transmit illegal material, but Petering got sloppy and the agents were able to identify him.”

Petering, 55, was arrested after he sent three pornographic photographs of a 14-year-old girl to a detective in Wilmington, Ohio, in an America Online chat room. Following his arrest, the hard drive on Petering’s computer was sent to the Missouri Department of Social Services, where members of the State Technical Assistance Team examined it for evidence.

Rodney Jones, an investigations administrator for STAT, said a computer forensics team made a copy of Petering’s hard drive, and then scanned it for illegal images using computer software called ENCase.

“We took those files and put them on a CD, which was used as evidence in the case,” Jones said.

With computer crime on the rise, law enforcement agencies are continuously adapting, Jones said. Institutes such as the National White Collar Crime Center are teaching officers basic online technical skills, as well as more advanced classes on financial records examination.

“They teach agents how to investigate crimes online without being identified as law enforcement,” Jones said. “They teach skills on how to capture these people.”

The cost of training and software, however, can be prohibitive. Forensic software can cost as much as $20,000, Jones said. Technological advances also pose a challenge to law enforcement.

“The saying is that technology doubles every 18 months, so it’s a matter of continually updating our end to keep up,” Jones said.

According to Anderson, including the Petering case, more than 100,000 child pornography images and video clips have been found on computers seized in Boone County in the past two years. He says the department has made “numerous arrests” for both possession and promotion of child pornography and that the number of investigations is increasing.

New laws have given prosecutors the ability to seek harsher sentences for possession of child pornography. A statute revision, which will go into effect on Aug. 28, increases the penalty for possession of child pornography from a misdemeanor to a Class D felony, transferring the enforcement and prosecution to state courts.

Petering is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 18. He faces 22 years in prison.

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