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Sex Crime

By Annalee Newitz

I was recently reminded of how sex can be used to exploit the vulnerable and terrorize the innocent. I'm speaking, of course, about child pornography, which has been much on my mind since the FBI's biggest child-porn-ring bust, Operation Candyman, hit the headlines last year. Now more than ever, it seems that the horrors of child porn are being exposed. How many innocent lives will be destroyed before the child-porn wars are over?

To answer, let me tell you a little story about my involvement with child porn. About 2 1/2 years ago, I was at work when yet another annoying spam arrived in my email box, helpfully alerting me to the fact that "hot Russian girls" could be mine in just seconds. Bored and vaguely amused by the idea of a Russian porn site, I decided to click on the link. When I got to the site, I couldn't believe my eyes. It was full of arty soft-core images of girls who were clearly no older than 13.

Up until that point, I had always believed that kiddie porn was like snuff films, more rumor than reality. Making the whole thing even more surreal was that the URL for this site had come to me in spam--how stupid is that if you're committing about 6 billion crimes at once? As I clicked around to gauge the site's authenticity, however, it became alarmingly clear to me that this was indeed pornography featuring prepubescent girls. It was disturbing and freaky and sad. I had a brief, childish wish that I could turn into Batman and rescue those kids. Then I sighed helplessly and deleted the email.

I stumbled onto this website believing it was adult porn. I didn't want to see child porn, and when I did see it, I was sickened. Nevertheless, for this accidental exposure to child porn, I could go to jail. That's exactly what happened to Adam Vaughn, one of the people arrested during the FBI's Operation Candyman. As Steve Silberman reported several months ago in Wired, Vaughn was accused of possession of child pornography on the basis of images in his browser cache and downloaded photos he'd deleted from his hard drive long before the accusations. Although Vaughn says he never sought out or wanted to keep pornographic images of children, he's serving 4 1/2 years.

As I know from personal experience, it's very easy for a nonpedophile to get child-porn images in her browser cache: just visit a child-porn site by accident, get weirded out and leave. The images you glanced at in disgust remain in your cache like accusatory digital ghosts. There are also easy ways for a nonpedophile, porn-loving person like myself to find child-porn images on her hard drive. If you want a bunch of sexy pictures, it's common to run one of many "spider" programs that are designed to browse newsgroups and automatically suck all images down to your hard drive for, er, inspection later. If I'm looking for hot lesbian porn, I'll set my spidering software to download all the images from the newsgroup alt.sex.lesbian. It's possible I may get one or two sick images from a jerk who posted them randomly. When I find those images later, I'll delete them. But even after deletion, the image files remain on my hard drive until the memory overwrites them--this may take years, or never happen. A forensic analyst could look at my hard drive, find those deleted images and call me a pedophile.

Sure, there are ways for me to scour my hard drive and remove all traces of my deleted files--there's a free software program for Windows called Eraser that you can find at SourceForge.net. You can search for "wipe" on the site and find a version of this program for Linux, too. But for people who don't know about these programs, there is always the danger that an image that crossed their desktop on the way to the trash can will be used against them in court.

I have a theory about who is really getting punished by stings like Operation Candyman. Sure, some pedophiles may get caught, and that's great. But what about the innocents whose browser caches get them thrown in the slammer? They're people like me and Vaughn--people who download free porn. If you only get your porn from pay sites like Playboy.com, you're not ever going to stumble accidentally across Russian kiddie porn, because content on adult pay sites is strongly regulated and edited. Random creeps can post child porn to adult newsgroups, but they can't do that on any pay sites.

Unfortunately, if you seek out free, unregulated porn, it's almost certain that child porn has left its tracks somewhere on your computer. Mass busts like Operation Candyman are just one way to create a chilling effect on the proliferation and use of free porn. Congress is also debating crackdowns on peer-to-peer networks because they're a major source for free pictures of sex. It's as if our government is telling us that if we're going to look at porn, we'd better pay for it. Otherwise, we might get branded pedophiles. How many innocent lives will be destroyed before the child-porn wars are over?

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd with an empty browser cache and a squeaky-clean hard drive.

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From the March 20-26, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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