WASHINGTON, June 6, 2015 – It was November of 2014 in the quiet suburban neighborhood as the light of an early Saturday morning began to peek through the clouds and the day found its beginning. The quaint three-bedroom home on the corner blended in with the rest of the neighborhood, as the freshly painted beige exterior glistened in the early morning sun. The neatly trimmed yard was littered with the toys of young children, and a brown mini van missing a hubcap was parked in the driveway.
Suddenly the screech of tires broke the landscape of silence as three black Chevy Suburbans with blacked windows came to an abrupt halt in front of the house. A group of men wearing black body armor and matching helmets formed a line behind two others holding a large black battering ram as they the disengaged the safety of their automatic weapons. As the group advanced on the front door, a loud crash echoed as the force of the battering ram met the front door and splinters of wood rained down on the group.
Inside the house a middle-aged man sat at a computer in the darkness as images of young children flashed across the screen and the video streamed across the secret network that made him invisible to the rest of the world. Seconds later, he was lying on the floor handcuffed, and law enforcement agents carefully began to collect the evidence they needed to bring down a global ring of pedophiles.
The investigation had taken over a year and had led agents into the darkest depths of a world few know about, a world where terrorists, drug dealers and pedophiles roam freely. Known as “the Dark Web,” it is a series on non-indexed sites around the world that create an abyss 500 times larger than the Internet you and I surf every day.
Tor is free software that allows a user to browse, send e-mail and chat anonymously. It also allows users access to the “Dark Web.” A 2014 study by University of Portsmouth computer science researcher Gareth Owen discovered a startling 80 percent of the traffic to sites on the Dark Web were associated with child pornography.
In an interview with CBS News, Greg Virgin, who formerly worked with the National Security Agency and is now a cyber security consultant to children’s rights groups commented, “It was just an awful realization, discovering there were tens of thousands of people who are not only trading child pornography, but planning to exploit children.”
On the Dark Web, pedophile “shopping” sites advertise children for sale as well as take “orders” for specific age groups. Virgin said, “We found one site where users openly advertised the ages of the children they were interested in. The average youngest age they were seeking for girls was zero years old. And the average age for boys was one.”
A 2014 Business Insider article by James Cook that documents a pedophile fundraising site for child exploitation videos further emphasizes the growth of child exploitation on the Dark Web. Pedophiles created a twisted form of the popular fundraising tool “Kickstarter,” which collected funds to exploit children and then share the videos on the Dark Web for free.
The FBI is rumored to have taken down several of the servers used by pedophiles on the Dark Web in 2013. But, according to Virgin, “”The demand is picked up very quickly by other sites, and the sites are replaced very quickly, usually by a stronger, better site.”
The Dark Web is a Rubik’s cube of depravity. For those who know how to unlock its many hidden doors, there is no limit to the horrific nightmares children are forced to live. Internet browsers such as Internet Explorer and Google Chrome scan roughly 5 percent of the space that is reached by Tor, which plunges deeply into the hidden world. Internet privacy enthusiasts attempt to deflect criticism of the use of Tor and the presence of child exploitation on the Dark Web by saying the numbers are inflated.
A computer hacker who spoke under the condition of anonymity noted, “There are doors within the Dark Web hidden so well that only a handful of experts could find them, and even then it would take some time to uncover the warren of passageways deep beneath the surface.”
Tor began with a much nobler purpose that still finds its place in the expanding landscape of illicit users on the Dark Web. It was envisioned as a way to allow journalists and those living under oppressive governments a means of communication that would protect their identities and their lives.
Created by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, Tor began in the 1990s as a way for the U.S. Intelligence Community to communicate securely. In 1997, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) further developed Tor and in 2004, the Naval Research Laboratory released the code for Tor under a free license. In 2006 a non-profit called “The Tor Project” was created by a group of computer scientists in Massachusetts that maintains Tor in association with several other organizations.
Law enforcement has been fighting back against those who exploit Tor for darker purposes. In 2013, Irish authorities arrested 28-year-old Eric Eoin Marques, who is thought responsible for Freedom Hosting, an anonymous hosting company rife with child exploitation.
After Marques’ arrest, a panic rushed through the pedophile community, when the U.S. National Security Agency released a virus onto the Freedom Hosting website to track and uncover the pedophiles lurking on the Dark Web. Numerous child exploitation forums were deleted in response to law enforcement’s infiltration of their twisted domain, and warnings temporarily drove pedophiles further underground.
The Dark Web interests law enforcement not only because of its large community of pedophiles but also because organized crime, terrorists, money laundering and the illegal drug trade have proliferated in its dark abyss.
For example, the infamous “Silk Road” site provided a marketplace of illicit drugs for sale on the Dark Web. Run by an administrator known only as the “Dread Pirate Roberts” (named after the character in the William Goldman novel and later movie “The Princess Bride”), the site drew the public ire of New York Sen. Chuck Schumer. The FBI arrested Ross William Ulbricht after an elaborate sting operation caught him logged on to the Silk Road site as the Dread Pirate Roberts himself.
The Dark Web has become an arena where the cat and mouse game between authorities and those who exploit a child’s innocence continues. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that as of January 2015, its CyberTipline received more than 3.3 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation since it was launched in 1998. Memex, a powerful new search engine developed by DARPA has given U.S. law enforcement the ability to root out the elusive miscreants who trade in the most depraved corners of the Dark Web.
We face a desperate struggle as child exploitation continues to grow at an unprecedented rate. Law enforcement needs everyone to learn how those who exploit our children operate. It is only when we have all joined together in the fight to save our children that we will finally eradicate these parasites of the innocent.
As a survivor of child sex trafficking, childhood sexual abuse and childhood sexual exploitation, I understand the continuous cycle of abuse each victim suffers. As a child I was abandoned by irresponsible and abusive parents, left to fend for myself, stripped of the tools that every child needs to function in the world and saved from a darker ending only by the unconditional love of my great-aunt.
I have struggled my entire life with the effects of my early loss of innocence. Overcoming it has been my greatest triumph, but it only became possible through the love and caring of those who held human compassion in the highest regard and dedicated themselves to the rescue of those standing at the edge of the abyss.
My sincerest hope is that I can save one child from suffering the hell I endured. Then I can leave this life with a sense of accomplishment. I hope you will all join me in the fight to protect our children from sexual predators before the next child is stripped of innocence.
To learn more about how you can help stop those who exploit a child’s innocence and report suspected child sexual exploitation, visit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children website http://www.missingkids.com/cybertipline/ or call the CyberTipline at 1-800-843-5678. Working together we can save the next child from a lifetime of ravaged innocence and stolen hopes and dreams.