"The Internet is an uncharted world. It's a world that parents don't know, but kids do. Parents would be shocked to see what goes on."
- Det. Chris Loyko, Lake County Sheriff's Office, Tavares, Fla., quoted in the Orlando Sentinel, Oct. 5, 2007
At the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Annex in St. John's, Acting Sgt. Ed Billard leads me through a maze of battered corridors and a warren of offices that makes me feel like I'm on the set of the 1970s police drama "Barney Miller."
The well-worn building is the perfect location for the gritty work that goes on inside, particularly in the RNC's Child Exploitation Unit.
The unit has expanded since I spoke to Billard in 2010; Const. Greg Hobbs has joined the office at Fort Townshend and a new position is soon to be filled in Corner Brook, to cover western Newfoundland and Labrador.
The work is certainly not for everyone - poring over still photographs and videos of children being sexually abused, not always knowing where they are or how to help them.
Still, the unit will begin its work in 2012 with an extra weapon in its arsenal: a new law that compels Internet service providers (ISPs) to report any information they receive about websites harbouring child pornography.
As the Canadian Press reported earlier this month, "They also have to tell police if they believe a child porn offence has been committed using their service. Failure to comply carries fines ranging from $1,000 to $100,000 or jail time for repeat offenders."
That's good news for Billard and Hobbs.
"I think it's a good thing. We are talking about child protection," Billard said. "It will be very helpful. It just speeds up the process."
And the process of catching child pornographers is precise and painstaking.
Take the case of former Anglican minister Robin Barrett, who got out of jail about a month ago after being sentenced in September 2010 to 2 ½ years for possessing and distributing child porn.
Barrett was caught in an international police sting known as Operation Sanctuary.
"An officer with the Toronto Police Service Child Exploitation Unit was functioning undercover in an Internet chat room where pedophiles were known to meet for an online chat," Billard explained.
"He was able to befriend the subject in the chat room and this subject agreed to share his child porn collection with the undercover officer."
Barrett's collection was staggering: 31,460 photos of prepubescent children being sexually abused, as well as 3,451 videos, with audio.
"During the trading of the child porn," Billard continued, "the Toronto police were able to obtain the Internet protocol of the target."
This gave the Toronto police Barrett's location - Conception Bay South - and they contacted the RNC, who identified Barrett and obtained a search warrant for his house.
Information not always given freely
Billard said while the RNC deals with many very helpful Internet service providers that voluntarily surrender information, some are more reluctant and the police have to file a production order - similar to a search warrant - to obtain the information.
Thanks to this new law, production orders will be a thing of the past.
But even when the police seize a suspect's computer, the process of extracting pornographic content is laborious.
"The files ... are completely time-consuming," Billard said. "There are legal protocols we have to follow. And the average laptop has 320 to 500 gigabytes of storage space. That's a lot of data when you consider that one gig of data - if you printed it off in sheets and stacked them up - would be higher than the CN Tower."
Putting child pornographers like Robin Barrett out of commission is satisfying work, Billard said - Barrett's case, in particular, since it contributed to an international child porn bust that saw 60 men arrested (25 of them in Canada), and 25 children rescued (12 of them in this country).
Currently, Barrett is being supervised by Corrections Canada and is under strict conditions not to have a computer or be in the company of children under 18.
Still, Billard acknowledges there is no guarantee child pornographers won't fall back into deviance.
"Once those conditions expire, he's on his own," he said.
Both Billard and Hobbs say the prevalence of child porn offences seems to be increasing.
"More and more households have computers, so there's more and more access," Hobbs said.
But Billard cautions the problem is much older than computer technology - which he considers both a blessing and a curse.
"The Internet is not creating the problem, the Internet is exposing the problem," he said.
"They can meet each other (there), the offenders can, and share material. But it makes them more susceptible to being caught, as well."
Of course, the Internet also attracts kids to places where they can share information, and that makes them vulnerable.
Webcams a no-no
Billard and Hobbs urge parents to talk to their children and to make a point of knowing where they're going online.
"Parents should be just as concerned as where they travel virtually (as physically)," Billard said.
"Talk to children about sexual behaviour, self-image, webcams. They should be cautioned about doing anything with webcams. They're taking pictures of themselves and transmitting them, and they're ending up in the collections of child pornographers. ... And we're talking kids of both genders."
If Billard and Hobbs had a wish list for the future, it would include further expansion of the Child Exploitation Unit.
"We're getting in a good place," Billard said, "but with further growth we could do more proactive work. ... We see this work as an opportunity to get people in the fantasy phase, before they reach out into the real world."
And touch somebody.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram's story editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: pam_frampton
RESOURCES FOR PARENTS
- The RNC's Community Services division offers presentations on Internet safety and personal safety for students and parents.
- The non-profit Canadian Centre for Child Protection offers a wealth of educational resources for parents, as well as a tip line for reporting online child victimization.