WASHINGTON, April 23, 2008 -- U.S. law enforcement is losing the battle to combat child pornography and child exploitation on the Internet, FBI Director Robert Mueller said today during a House Judiciary Committee hearing.
"We're losing," Mueller said bluntly when asked about the issues of computer crime and child pornography on the Web by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.
"It is growing on the Internet, exponentially is probably too strong a term, but just about every crime there is has gravitated to the Internet, and in certain cases, the Internet has provided the vehicle for expansion that otherwise would not be there, and that's certainly true with child pornography," Mueller told Franks and the rest of the committee.
Due to the growing use of the Internet, digital photography and encryption software, the problem has become more pervasive in recent years.
The FBI and Justice Department have held meetings with major Internet service providers (ISPs) such as AOL to look at the feasibility of expanding data retention to go after child pornographers and those who provide the images on the Internet.
"I do believe that records retention would be of assistance in terms of addressing these problems," Mueller said when he was asked if legislation requiring additional record retention by ISPs would be useful. "But it's not just one agency, it's a number of federal agencies, state and local law enforcement, all to be integrated in addressing what is an increasing problem."
Privacy groups such as the Center for Democracy and Technology have addressed concerns about privacy, security, cost and the effectiveness of retaining Internet records for longer periods of time.
"It's important that we have access to the records, and records retention by ISPs would be tremendously helpful in giving us the historical basis to make a case in a number of these child predators who utilize the Internet to either push their pornography or to lure persons in order to meet them," Mueller said.
"I think a number of us may well follow up on that suggestion," the committee's ranking member, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said. "The ability to retain those records sounds to me like it's crucial."
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), child pornography is a $20 billion-a-year black market industry that has been proliferating on the Internet.
In 2006, NCMEC, major banks, credit card companies and ISPs created the Financial Coalition Against Child Pornography to stop the flow of money among Web sites and child pornographers.
In his testimony, Mueller said the FBI has 270 agents working on the Innocent Images program, a multi-agency international operation to fight the spread of child pornography and the sexual exploitation of children online. There are law enforcement officers from 21 countries working with the task force and training center in Maryland to track down child predators, he said.
The FBI cites the Innocent Images Program, which was started in 1995, as one of its most important cyber programs to fight child exploitation. FBI agents and investigators may pose as children on the Internet to lure predators into sting operations or pose as collectors sharing images of children on peer to peer networks.
The program works closely with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to identify children and potential adults depicted in the abuse.
According to the FBI, the program has grown from 113 cases in 1996 to more than 2,400 cases last year, with more than 6,800 child predators being convicted since the program was started.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., questioned the FBI's allocation of resources on the issue and told the Director, "I don't think that the FBI is doing enough to pursue online child predators… There are about 500,000 known online child pornographers, people trading these images -- these are depictions of sexual acts that are actually happening, crime scene photographs."
Mueller responded saying, "I will say that we have almost 270 agents working nationwide, but I'm not going to tell you that that is sufficient to address this. As I've indicated to you before, it's tremendously important. It's an issue that is deserving of more resources."
The director also cited the importance of implementing and supporting task forces with state and local police to combat the problem.
"My own view, it again, it relates to task forces … around the country, but they need to be funded," he said. "We need to grow the task forces within the United States and develop the relationships with similar task forces overseas."