catch online predators

How To Catch Online Predators: Police And Vigilante Techniques

The Internet is a great stomping ground for people with all types of interests, given the anonymity, access to information, and easy reach across nations.

Unfortunately, what’s great for a craft aficionado or gamer is also useful for online predators–in this case, those that use the Internet to groom or meet under-aged girls, solicit young people for sex, or distribute child pornography.

Where sexual predators are at advantage, however, law enforcement (or even vigilantes) can get the upper hand as well to catch online predators using innovative methodologies. Here’s how various technologies and techniques are helping bring justice by catching creeps via the Internet everyday.

Close Observation Programs

Just as detectives can tail a suspect in person, similar techniques are used online to observe questionable activities of supposed predators. While legally it is prohibited to hack into suspects’ private information, programs such as RoundUp, created by UMass Amherst computer scientists, allow investigators to watch open activities of individuals in their network.

Aggregate data is then collected, allowing for police to track the volume of online child pornography trafficking, and in turn generate million of leads worldwide daily, according to via UMass Amherst.

Impersonation and Virtual Reality

While observational programs like RoundUp are great for catching people sharing illegal content, the Internet is still full of criminals that prey on young people through chat, social media, and webcam. Police impersonation of children online is, thus far, the most effective way to catch them in the act.

A training program called “Dancing with the Devil, investigating online child abusers” guides officers into analyzing potential predators and policing them, according to the Guardian. Through this training, one criminologist chatted with, set up meetings with, and arrested 27 men.

A more recent project was set up by Dutch children charity Ter Des Hommes with the aim of catching online webcam predators, participants in a new phenomenon that poses threat to children across the world, especially in the Philippines. A fake profile was made for a Filipino 10-year-old called “Sweetie,” which was virtualized to appear like a real girl.

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 2.30.11 PM
Screengrab from the BBC’s video on Terre des Hommes

“Sweetie” identified over 1,000 men, many of which were willing to pay her to perform sexual acts on webcam. Predators were identified and reported from 71 countries in only 10 weeks.

Besides virtual reality, artificial intelligence is another technology making waves in catching pedophiles. Researchers at the University of Deusto in Spain have created what some are calling a “virtual Lolita” chatbot, formally named Negobot, which uses AI to converse with and identify potential predators.

Vigilante Justice

Though it’s advised to leave this business to the police, there are others who prefer to take matters into their own hands–and not always legally or without repercussions.

One example is the online activist group Anonymous. The vigilante group has a program called Operation PedoChat which aims to shut down 100 websites and forums known to support and enable pedophiles and online predators.

Photo courtesy of Frédéric BISSON via Flickr.

Anonymous has also made more individual attacks on online predators. For example, after 15-year-old Amanda Todd was harassed, bullied, and blackmailed, leading to her own suicide, Anonymous used their “hacktivist” skills to out the man who allegedly did it.

Another activist group, known as Perverted Justice, trains vigilante contributors to infiltrate online chat rooms posed as underage kids. Contributors use these false identities to lure and catch predators, inform the police, and testify against them if and when they go to court.

As much as everyone loves a good Batman, this phenomenon (called “pedo-hunting” by the Guardian) can unfortunately have destructive consequences, especially when vigilante groups publicly accuse a person without sufficient evidence and broadcast their personal information across the internet.

The police urges concerned parties to contact the police upon suspicion of online predation instead of jumping into the hands of less experienced vigilante organizations. In the end, only law enforcement can really put these criminals away, and ensure they’re off the sleazy web-streets for good.

Updated. Cover photo courtesy of puuikibeach via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic.

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