Multinational Operation Targets Major Online Child Porn Network

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An operation against a child pornography network that spanned at least 18 countries in Europe and Latin America has once again underscored the difficulties of policing illegal cyber activity and how international cooperation may help take down such schemes.

Authorities have arrested 39 members of an “interconnected criminal network” that distributed child pornography via the instant messaging service WhatsApp, the Spanish National Police reported on April 18.

Police arrested 17 people in Spain, six in Colombia, four in Italy, and more in Germany, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Chile, El Salvador and Portugal. The Spanish Police, Interpol and Europol worked together on “Operation Tantalio,” targeting what is reportedly “the main international network” of its kind to date.

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The operation is rooted in a 2016 investigation into the “darkweb” software Tor, an anonymity network that conceals users’ online activity. This revealed a URL via which users could gain access to WhatsApp groups exchanging multimedia files of children being sexually exploited.

Around 96 groups were detected and over 360,000 archives found. Among the investigators’ findings was also a log of encounters with minors, some dating back two decades.

The operation is investigating a total of 135 people, and further arrests are expected.

InSight Crime Analysis

International child pornography networks operating on darkweb networks and social or messaging networks such as Facebook and WhatsApp are not uncommon. These often consist of individuals exchanging personal material of minor abuse on virtual channels and websites, some with tens of thousands of users.

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Such activity has made the level of secrecy of virtual platforms — including the encryption system used by WhatsApp — deeply problematic. While this software supports user privacy, it also allows for criminal operations of all kinds to abound. A recent report revealed that over half of websites exclusively accessible through Tor facilitated illegal activities, including drugs and arms trafficking, money laundering, hiring assassins and child exploitation.

As the “first joint international action against child pornography in the European Union,” this latest operation seems to fit into a concerted global effort to tackle transnational organized crime with transnational security force cooperation. Recent worldwide operations have covered all kinds of illegal activity, from drug trafficking to cyber crime.

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