By Kotie Geldenhuys
Child pornography has found a welcoming home on the Internet, as it provides a place for individuals to create, access and share child sexual abuse images worldwide at the click of a button. These criminals prefer to use the Internet since they can go about their illegal business anonymously and privately. They can also be directed to others in an inexpensive way, such as through websites, e-mail, chat rooms, newsgroups, bulletin boards, peer-to-peer networks and social networking sites. Then there is also the potential of real-time and interactive experiences for which webcams, video chat rooms and social networking sites are utilised.
Offenders can connect on Internet forums and networks to share their interests, desires and experiences in abusing children, in addition to selling, sharing and trading images. The child pornography market exploded after the advent of the Internet and is one of the fastest growing online markets. DeGarmo (2017) argues that it is a multi-billion dollar online industry, with more than 100 000 sites dedicated to the crime. The Internet has enabled child pornography to grow as an industry, and it is used as a tool to escalate this already disturbing crime.
Since child pornography images are distributed digitally, one of the advantages for the perpetrators is that the quality of the pictures does not deteriorate with time and can therefore be copied and shared with others time and again. The supply of child pornography and the exploitation of children in a sexual manner will never stop unless society addresses the demand for such material. The exploitation of children has been around for a long time and online technology has only served to increase the problem (DeGarmo, 2017).
Online child pornography does not know any borders and children are exposed across borders - South Africa is not exempt from this. Offenders in South Africa not only distribute pornographic images of South African children online to offenders abroad, they also receive images of children from their fellow perpetrators from all over the world.
Although we have heard about online child pornography and the arrests that have been made in the past, no-one ever really knew the extent of this horrific crime. Thus, when the SAPS became involved with Project Spade, which is an international police investigation into child pornography in 2013, they never imagined what a huge can of rotten worms they had opened.
Project Spade was initiated in 2012 in Toronto, Canada when police members made online contact with a man who was alleged to have been sharing pornographic videos featuring children via the Internet and mail. The investigation involved more than 50 countries, including South Africa. In 2013, the SAPS received information about 43 possible South African targets (suspects). With the help of Danny Myburgh from Cyanre, the Computer Forensic Lab, members of the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences (FCS) Unit in Gauteng worked through all the information to draft spreadsheets. During this process, Lt-Col Heila Niemand, the Commander of the Gauteng Serial and Electronic Crime (FCS) Investigations (SECI) Unit, realised that the members do not have experience in dealing with an investigation of this magnitude. She therefore made an appointment with Lt-Gen Vinesh Moonoo, the Divisional Commissioner of Detectives at the time, to explain the reasons why this type of investigation had to be done from one centralised office with dedicated investigating officers. Lt-Gen Moonoo agreed with Lt-Col Niemand's suggestion, and this resulted in the establishment of a dedicated task team which she was to lead as the South African leg of the investigation.
As the targets were spread all over the country, one big "takedown" was organised on the same date and at the same time in August 2013, in all the provinces involved. Members from the Gauteng Provincial FCS Head Office who formed part of the dedicated task team, together with FCS members working in the relevant provinces, approached the targets simultaneously to prevent them from warning one another. On that specific day, eight targets were arrested. The task team worked through 24 premises and confiscated personal computers and laptops which were handed to the Technological Investigation Support Centre (TISC) at Detective Services: Head Office in Pretoria for further analysis. The targets who were arrested in South Africa include professionals such as teachers and lawyers. By April 2017, only one of the eight targets who were arrested in 2013 was still in court. It is concerning and important to note that none of the targets were sentenced to direct imprisonment. Fortunately, the good work that the investigation team had done did not go unnoticed and Interpol forwarded a commendation letter to the SAPS for the successes related to Project Spade in South Africa. Project Spade investigations worldwide have identified more than 350 000 images and more than 9000 videos of child sexual abuse and, globally, arrests are continuing to this day.