Today, I published the results of a five-month investigation into the problem of child pornography, child predators and child exploitation on the Internet.
The investigation really required all of the investigative tools that I’ve ever brought to my disposal all at once – certainly everything I’ve ever had to try and pull off while doing research work here at Top Secret Writers.
One of those areas was a full interview with an FBI cybercrime expert named Russ Brown, a supervisor of FBI cyber crimes division in Boston.
By far, the problem is multifaceted and also controversial. It should go without saying that exploiting children – the most innocent of lives – is an unconditional evil that should be shut down as quickly as possible.
The other side of the coin is just as troubling; does the effort to put an end to an evil – any evil – justify the means to that end? Should people accept greater levels of government surveillance, justified by the need to root out these evils?
These are the questions I found myself pondering even after penning the very last lines of that 6000+ word article. And it’s a concept that I’d like to expound on further here.
Does the FBI Conduct Surveillance?
The course of my investigation for MakeUseOf was focused on uncovering the scale of the problem, and to really uncover what not only the FBI was doing about it, but also organizations like Google, Microsoft and Facebook.
It was for that reason that I didn’t pressure Greg Comcowich, the FBI media coordinator for Boston FBI headquarters, to elaborate on his statement that the “FBI doesn’t monitor.”
Here was what Greg told me during that interview:
“Let me answer it this way. Our rule, our guideline, our policy is simply that we can’t monitor people’s activity without having some indication of criminal activity. So really, the cornerstone of this is an indication of criminal activity. That’s when we go out and say okay, now we can start an investigation. I think it’s important to say that because of a perception that we are monitoring the Internet.”
Really though, how true is it that the FBI doesn’t actively try to monitor the Internet for child predators? Instinctively, I felt that the statement wasn’t completely forthcoming. However, it wasn’t the intent of that article to pressure the FBI to admit such activity.
However, it is always my intention here at TopSecretWriters to make sure that the truth is out there regarding that kind of government activity.
FBI Monitoring for Child Predators
My sense is that Greg had to have been referring only to Boston FBI headquarters, because it isn’t difficult to turn up cases where the FBI was clearly “going after” predators proactively.
FBI national headquarters’ own website admits to this activity, stating under the headline “Innocent Images Investigators”:
During investigations, agents sometimes pose online as teens to infiltrate pedophile networks and to gather evidence by downloading files that are indicative of child pornography. During the investigation of known suspects, undercover agents may also ‘friend’ people the suspect is associated with. (1)
Again – this doesn’t explicitly counter what Greg told me, because he did state they will start to become “proactive” once they become aware of the existence of pedophile networks. So the above surveillance or monitoring activity may only be in response or as part of an investigation. Fair enough.
However, other related online activities by the FBI imply that the agency is not really as passive as Greg and Russ wanted to portray in my interview with them.
Case in point was the Dark Market sting in 2008.
The FBI Dark Market Sting
Interviewed on CNET in 2009, FBI agent J. Keith Mularski told reporter Elinor Mills that he essentially posed as a hacker named “Master Splynter” in an effort to infiltrate underground crime groups running hacker forums on the Internet.
The FBI created the user profile and then created this fake persona of an expert hacker. Keith went so far as to establish a reputation as one of the world’s top 5 spammers as part of the Spamhaus Project, which tracks spammers. (2)
He was so successful, he was even able to become the server administrator for the Dark Market hacker forum. The undercover operation ended up netting a number of arrests.
Keith’s statement about the operation was, “It showed that we can get you no matter where you live.”
If the agency would be so proactive for the case of online hacking, it makes logical sense to think that they would conduct even more aggressive sting operations to root out potential pedophile networks online.
In fact, it seems to be how the agency caught Michael Isacson in the act in 2011, when he attempted to meet and have sex with an 11-year-old girl. He was actually communicating with an FBI agent posing as the willing and complicit mother of the girl. (3)
The Necessity of Surveillance
It would appear that a civilized society really cannot be maintained without a degree of surveillance. People need alarm systems on nice cars, or otherwise risk car theft. They need home security systems, or risk a break-in.
It may very well be true that the FBI needs to conduct such undercover operations throughout the Internet in order to root out those evil elements on those social networks, forums and chat rooms.
But where is the line, and who gets to draw it? Was Greg coy about these activities because of their undercover nature, or was there some other reason to avoid public awareness of the extent of those activities?
It makes you wonder – the next time you communicate with a stranger on a forum or on a social network, is that person real, or is it an undercover FBI agent?
Maybe the idea that there is more online government surveillance going on than we may think, isn’t so crazy after all.