Friday, March 5, 2010

Images of War

by Lisa Cohen

Last week's announcement that Delaware pediatrician Dr. Earl Bradley was charged with 471 separate counts of child molestation shocked the public. It seemed to throw even Delaware's Attorney General Beau Biden for a loop. He told reporters this might be the worst case of abuse the state had ever seen. So far, Biden's office has identified more than 100 victims from 13 hours of videotape Bradley allegedly shot -- victims ranging in age from 14 years down to 18 months. Eighteen-month-old babies.
Biden knows he's got to be careful not to say more than he can. But this father of two young children was pretty clear. "The reality is that as a prosecutor, the rules prohibit me from telling you exactly how I feel -- and I'm feeling a great deal today."

Almost two dozen prosecutors and other staffers are being tapped to track this case, as well as resources borrowed from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, working together in the seaside town of Lewes, as well as Wilmington, and a crime lab in Dover. Delaware State Police detectives are going door-to-door in Lewes, asking parents of Bradley's patients the painful questions that might determine whether their children are yet more victims to add to the long list.

Biden (right) said the search is also aimed at uncovering how this "physician could lurk in our midst for as long as he did." And how he could have recorded his heinous acts?

I can't look into his mind, nor, frankly, would I want to if I could. But clearly, if Bradley is guilty of such monstrosity slash stupidity, he is not alone. Child porn is everywhere, exploding on the internet. Julian Sher, author of "One Child at a Time: the Global Fight to Rescue Children from On-line Predators," says that via computers, porn thrives in an environment of the 3As: anonymity, access, and acceptance. Bradley might have recorded himself for his own private pleasure ... or to blackmail his victims into silence -- at least, the ones who were old enough to talk (!!??). He might have intended to share -- or already has shared -- his recordings across the globe.

According to Michelle K. Collins, Director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's Exploited Child Unit, writing in an issue of "The Police Chief," general trends in recent years point to that third option. Offenders are self-reporting more and more that they collect and trade these images to enhance their stature amongst their online "peers." It's a community that supports and justifies each others' actions. Not to mention the money there is to be made.

NCMEC estimates they review some 250,000 images a week depicting abused children online, available at the click of mouse. In many cases, it's not the pseudo-pubescent, pigtailed adults posing in schoolgirl uniforms, but actual acts of extreme violence perpetrated on younger and younger children. NCMEC's Collins cites data showing 58% of child victims seen were prepubescent, with some 6% of them infants. Often they are faceless, the better to hide their identities and to minimize their humanity.

It boggles the mind.

There are combatants fighting the perpetrators, who, even if they appear in the videos, are largely faceless and elusive themselves. In the Delaware case, the perp is presumably a known entity. But even now, after two months with the damning video in hand, investigators are still looking to identify victims. Biden's office has appealed to parents to come forward with any clues, as they work to amass the strongest possible case against Earl Bradley.

On a nationwide level, NCMEC's Child Victim Identification Program (CVIP) marshals the talents of a dozen federal law enforcement agents who, among others, spend their days perusing the most egregious video and photos with two major goals. They're looking for clear-cut evidence for prosecutors, and in many cases they're looking to identify locations -- what hotel room or basement in what city -- to literally track down and rescue tiny victims.

As a former television news producer who's spent years in edit rooms watching the same five second clips over and over during an interminable edit, I can't imagine a more discomfiting activity than watching such horrific content repeatedly. But the work has yielded results. NCMEC reports more than 900 cases where the CVIP team has aided in a rescue, simply by scrutinizing the smallest of details.

For example, "MINNEA...," the partial revelation on a school uniform draped over a chair in the background, gave away the city and helped liberate six prepubescent girls in Minneapolis. The video producer in that case was convicted of over two dozen counts of making, possessing and distributing pornography. The team looks for details of a room, the specific make of camera used, anything to narrow the search.

CVIP isn't the only one with vigilant eyes out there. Paul Gillespie (left), a veteran Toronto police detective, spent months analyzing web images for clues in the distinctive wallpaper or the soda cans at one young victim's crime scene. Finally, the distinctive logo on a piece of jewelry sent cops to find her, not abducted by strangers, but held captive and tortured by her own father, who passed images of her abuse around online for his friends to enjoy.

Gillespie eventually turned to Bill Gates (below right). "Your technology helped create this mess," he wrote the Microsoft founder in a 2003 email. "Help us clean it up." Gates responded with millions of dollars and some creative minds to build CETS, (Child Exploitation Tracking System). The tracking system took clues from different web images and synthesized them. Its first case was an immediate success -- a four-year-old girl whose abuse was being viewed by a 1,200-strong ring of paying online customers.

Beyond using the images as part of the investigation, there's also the important effort to purge them from sight. Victims describe the proliferation as an eternal, endless sense of being abused over and over again. But rounding up all the copies is a tough task, especially if material is altered in any way -- cropped, re-sized, re-colored -- because then the image can't be searched for online in any uniform way. Most of what appears on the Internet has been changed from its original form. But in December, Microsoft introduced, and then donated to NCMEC, something called PhotoDNA.

Developed along with Dartmouth professor Hany Farid, the new technology manages to identify a photograph's innate signature, its "DNA," regardless of modification. An offending image can then be submitted to online service providers, who in turn can delete all versions from their sites. One added plus: PhotoDNA may be helpful in tracking down "invisible" copies of the illegal photos, which could lead authorities to offenders.

It's a David v. Goliath effort, but it offers some hope amidst the bleakest visions of mankind. It's a world view that is no doubt burned into the minds of these helpless children, subjected to the very worst, often by those very adults -- parents, priests, a family doctor -- who were supposed to keep them safe.


Kathryn Casey said...

Very upsetting post, Lisa. I don't know how I missed hearing about this case. Good for Gates that he responded when asked. Let's hope he focuses more on fighting this abomination. Our children are so precious.

Anonymous said...

I dont understand how the babies got in there. Where were the parents. I have never heard of a parent leaving their baby alone with the doctor. Or even the little kids. 14, yeah, I think they start letting them go in by themselves at that age.

That said, just like in a gyno's office now. There has to be someone in the room with the kids with the doctor at all times.