The abyss stares | ZARRAR KHUHRO

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AS if the Kasur child sexual abuse case wasn’t horrific enough, another sickening case emerged in Sargodha where a man named Saadat Amin was arrested for producing and distributing child pornography.

This prolific pervert is accused of having produced 65,000 pornographic videos of his victims — something that is shocking enough in and of itself — but the circumstances of his arrest and the investigation that lead to it also bring into sharp focus the shadowy world of global child sexual abuse. This is because the investigation was prompted by a tip-off from the Norwegian government which traced the filth Amin produced from those who consumed it all the way back to the source in Sargodha.

Amin wasn’t just in it for his sick pleasure, he was also in it for profit, and the videos he made were avidly consumed by Norwegian perverts with deep pockets. Reportedly, he made close to $38,000 from this industry of abuse, and even planned to travel with his victims to Norway to produce more films.

How deep is the network of child sexual abuse?

Just how deep is this network? In November 2016, the Norwegian police concluded Operation Dark Room, a year-long investigation into a network of Norwegian paedophiles who used the dark web to exchange child pornography.

For those who don’t know, the ‘dark’ web, also known as the ‘deep’ or ‘invisible’ web refers to “the part of the World Wide Web that is not discoverable by means of standard search engines, including password-protected or dynamic pages and encrypted networks”. It was the largest paedophile bust in Norwegian history, resulting in the arrests of 51 men including a former teacher, at least two elected officials, along with doctors, lawyers and IT professionals.

It was a sophisticated network, with stringent vetting procedures for aspiring members and advanced encryption techniques. Some 150 terabytes of material were seized, and to put that in context, one terabyte can fit 500 hours of video, meaning that the equivalent of 75,000 hours of videotaped rape and abuse were seized; 75,000 hours of destroyed lives and broken children.

To give an idea of the extent of the depravity in question, police say “one of the involved men had a pregnant girlfriend and discussed plans with another man to sexually abuse the child once it was born”.

But this too was just a small part of an even larger network, because the tip-off that led to Operation Dark Room came from the FBI, which was conducting its own two-year investigation into a dark net site called Play Pen. While exact details have not yet been revealed, we do know that FBI technicians managed to gain control of the site and in fact directly operated it from Feb 20 to March 4, 2015, infecting the computers of Play Pen users with malware that was then used to track them down.

At that time, the site had more than 215,000 registered users and included links to more than 23,000 explicit images and videos of children, some “barely old enough for kindergarten”. At least 137 cases have been brought in the US alone as a result.

But the very way in which the FBI obtained this information may in fact lead to the weakening of the case against the perpetrators, as privacy advocates are claiming that the FBI violated laws by infecting computers with malware and is in fact guilty of committing a crime itself by operating the website as a sting operation.

Defending the move, Ron Hosko, a former FBI senior official, says the agency “had a window of opportunity to get into one of the darkest places on Earth, and not a lot of other options except to not do it … there was no other way we could identify as many players”.

Even leaving aside the legal questions, prosecuting online paedophiles — especially those part of globe-spanning networks — is surprisingly difficult. In 2001, Operation Cathedral, the biggest international police operation ever undertaken, busted what was then the world’s largest paedophile network, the Wonderland Group. Complete with a chairman and a treasurer, aspiring members of this ‘club’ had to submit 10,000 pornographic images of children as an entry fee.

While the bust seemed like a victory, it quickly emerged that police forces in many of countries involved lacked the skill to break the complex encryptions. Note that CIA experts tried to break the codes used by a British Wonderland member for 30 days and failed. Thanks to legal loopholes, others were released after serving as little as six months in prison.

Meanwhile, though the number of children abused in this case ran into the thousands, one as young as three months old, only 16 have been identified and one of those is presumed dead.

This, then, is a small glimpse into the vast industry of perversion that spans the globe, an industry that uses children for its raw material and produces only pain.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2017