There were rules to be a member of Dreamboard, an online bulletin board whose sole purpose was advertising and distributing child pornography.
One rule: No children older than 13.
In 2009, dozens of law enforcement agencies—including ICE-Homeland Security Investigations, the U.S. Department of Justice and 35 domestic ICE offices—infiltrated the network and cracked into its encrypted files.
“Operation Delego,” as it was called, was one of the largest U.S. law enforcement efforts aimed at fighting internet crimes against children. It has led to more than 70 convictions to date, including Brian Musomba Maweu, a.k.a. “Catfish,” who in a recent letter to The (Shreveport) Times criticized “the whole ‘child porn is evil’ attitude.”
Operation Delego was a success at a time when law enforcement officers often are outgunned technologically by the very people they’re trying to stop: child pornographers and people who solicit children for sex online.
Technological advances and the internet have forced law enforcement agencies to evolve methods of tracking and catching online predators.
But the growth in internet crimes against children has far outstripped the resources provided to law enforcement agencies to fight them, law enforcement experts say.
In Louisiana, beat cops and sheriff’s deputies handle internet-related crimes on top of existing caseloads.
But the state also has a number of specially trained investigators from multiple agencies – including the Shreveport FBI, the Bossier City Marshal’s Office, and the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office in Baton Rouge, among others—who serve on the Louisiana Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
The state ICAC team received 1,200 cybertips, arrested more than 220 individuals, performed 865 forensic examinations of devices and responded to more than 600 statewide requests for technical support in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The money granted to them for their work? Federal funds totaling $317,572.
Corey Bourgeois, lead investigator at the attorney general’s cybercrime unit, is grateful for that federal money. Without it, he said, his lab couldn’t function.
But the money doesn’t stretch far. Forensic tool kits cost at least $500 per unit, and the lab spends at least $55,000 a year for software renewals and upgrades, Bourgeois said.
The upgrades and high-tech equipment are needed to counter online predators’ ever-evolving arsenal of tools, including encryption. Dreamboard users employed encryption software, peer-to-peer networks and the Dark Web to share thousands of images with people across 13 countries.
And rules for Dreamboard users required all members to use specific encryption technologies to avoid law enforcement detection, according to court documents.
Dreamboard also attached a link and a password to every child sexual abuse file description, which its members used to access the images through another website whose sole purpose was to store encrypted files.
Online offenders, in general, are becoming increasingly tech-savvy, Bourgeois said.
More than a fifth of online offenders use “sophisticated” methods to hide their offenses: including password protection, encryption, file servers or P2P networks, evidence eliminator software, remote storage or partitioned hard drives, according to a Crimes Against Children Research Center report.
District Attorney Schuyler Marvin said one offender in Bossier Parish wired his computer to wipe the hard drive if a pass code wasn’t entered within the first few seconds of opening the device.
Another offender, during an online chat with an undercover agent, asked the “13-year-old girl” to send him a picture. Since law enforcement agents are not allowed to distribute child pornography, the agent’s phone wouldn’t permit him to send pictures. But the offender had figured out that the agent was using a smartphone, Marvin said, and cut the conversation short.
Bourgeois said his agents have ways to “get around” encryption and other protections. But once they break into offenders’ troves of images, investigators face another challenge.
“We’ve seen cases lately where we can’t even catalogue them all,” said Lt. Chad Gremillion, who works for the Special Victims Unit of the Louisiana State Police.
“We’re talking about terabytes, literally hundreds and hundreds of thousands of images. Videos that are an hour in length of a child being sexually assaulted, raped, forced into oral sex and bondage scenarios.”
A terabyte, a unit of digital storage equal to about 1,000 gigabytes, can hold about 3.6 million images, 300 hours of good quality video or about 1,000 copies of the Encyclopædia Brittanica, according to whatsabyte.com.
The attorney general’s cyber crime lab currently stores on its servers more than 800 terabytes of digital evidence, Bourgeois said. The lab also has two “evidence rooms,” packed from floor to ceiling, with hard drives, printers, laptops and other physical items seized by agents.
The lab stores the evidence for five to eight years after cases are adjudicated, then burns the devices in an incinerator at the state police lab in Alexandria, Bourgeois said. Meanwhile, he tries to visit the evidence rooms “as little as possible” due to their gruesome contents.
Bourgeois said the lab’s computer software can help sort through and match the millions of violent images to known victims in an international database, created by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. But investigators have to view the hundreds of thousands of remaining images, and that can take an emotional toll on his staff, Bourgeois said.
“We use computers to do things more efficiently, but it still takes a person to put their eyes on this to make sure that it is in fact the image that it says it is,” he said.
Dreamboard rules required all members to post images of at least three minors engaged in “sexually explicit conduct” so that members “would have a massive and private library of child pornography available,” according to court documents.
Maweu, snared in the Dreamboard sting, had gained “Super VIP” status by posting more than 120 images of child pornography, at least 34 of which he had produced himself, according to court documents.
A Kenyan, he was extradited to the United States, convicted on one count of child exploitation enterprise and sentenced to life imprisonment at the Pollock Federal Correctional Institution in Louisiana.
Materials posted by Maweu and other Dreamboard members included video files as well as still images.
That means that investigators not only see the sexual abuse of the children in a still image. They also see it happening before their eyes as the acts unfold on video. They hear it, too.
Bourgeois, who has an eight-year-old daughter, said some days he struggles to continue the work he does at the cybercrime lab.
It’s hard to talk about what you do. In that way, you feel alone,” he said. “But you go home and you thank God that everybody is safe, and you come to work the next day, knowing that what you and your team is doing every day is helping just a little bit.”
Globalization, encryption, offender communities and the prevalent use of the “Dark Web” are only a few of the challenges law enforcement officers face in addressing internet-related crimes.
Another main challenge is mobile devices and their proliferation of apps and social media sites, including Snapchat, Instagram, What’s App, Kik Messenger, Facebook and more, said Caddo Sheriff’s Office Detective Jared Marshall, also an ICAC Task Force member.
On a brisk March morning, the soft-spoken investigator sat in his office cubicle, scanning IP addresses that popped onto a screen connected to a special peer-to-peer computer that tracked active child pornography downloads. Marshall watched for sexual solicitations of children on a second monitor and separate browser, opened to a chat site well known to investigators.
Marshall said his first undercover investigation with the site, in which he assumed the identity of the solicited teen by taking over her account, taught him that each new digital platform has unique challenges. He exited the teen’s account on her phone, then tried logging into the account again from his work phone, only to find that in the brief interlude the alternative texting site had deleted the evidence he needed.
“The whole case hinged on the fact that I needed to preserve that evidence, that conversation. When I logged out to log into my work phone, I lost all that information,” Marshall said.
Outsmarting Online Predators
Marshall said training in peer-to peer investigations and undercover chat operations, funded by federal dollars, has helped him keep up with tactics used by tech-savvy offenders.
Training also has allowed him to brush up on forensic skills that are critical to nailing offenders behind their keyboards in real time as they commit internet crimes.
Agents use computer forensics to identify people who access child sexual abuse images or try to solicit children online. Their tools permit agents to determine the IP address, computer host name and the Globally Unique Identifier – or GUID – used to uniquely identify a computer’s operating system.
Shelley Anderson, lead detective for the Bossier City Marshal’s Office Cyber Crime Unit, often has used forensic examinations of devices when online offenders claim that they were “hacked” or that they’re innocent of viewing or possessing child abuse images.
“That’s when you do a deeper dive for forensics. You have to follow that rabbit hole,” Anderson said.
But forensic interviews are time-intensive and expensive, Bourgeois said. A forensic interview for a single device can average up to four months and can require the attention of expert agents.
Bourgeois said parishes have to be particularly careful about whom they train to fight internet-related crimes. Too often, investigators go through the training and then are promoted or re-assigned to different departments and the internet crime fighters’ access to their valuable skills is lost, Bourgeois said.
“Child pornography is a problem (and) it’s going to continue to be a problem because of the access to it now,” he said.
“The internet has created an access that we’ve never had before. “
This is an abridged and slightly edited version of a story published yesterday in The Shreveport Times, as part of a series investigating crime on the Internet. Lex Talamo was a 2016 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Criminal Justice Reporting Fellow. The full story is available here. Lex welcomes comments from readers.