Dutch activists track alleged child abusers with help of digital "girl"
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - An international children's rights group said on Monday it had passed details of 1,000 alleged Internet sex offenders to Interpol after trawling video chatrooms with the aid of a computer-generated 10-year-old Filipina 'girl' named Sweetie.
Terre des Hommes urged authorities to tackle the growing problem of minors being coaxed into performing sexual acts in front of a webcam, and said it would provide them with the technology it had developed.
"The predator won't come forward. The victim won't come forward," Terre des Hommes activist Hans Guyt told a news conference in The Hague. "This requires a new way of policing."
The group's researchers were inundated with potential predators when they went online with a lifelike, digitally-animated persona named Sweetie.
Her video chat partners thought they were talking to a Filipina minor, but in fact they were communicating with a team in a warehouse in the Dutch capital Amsterdam, who were recording everything and looking for clues to their identity.
"In 10 weeks, we traced 1,000 men from all over the world who were willing to pay Sweetie to perform sexual acts in front of the webcam," said Albert Jaap van Santbrink, director of Terre des Hommes Netherlands.
"Our worst-case scenario is that the same will happen with this phenomenon as with child pornography, which is now a multi-billion industry in the hands of criminal gangs."
The largest contingents of named suspects on the dossier came from the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, Germany, Turkey, Italy and the Netherlands. In all, the charity identified suspects in 71 countries.
"We identified ourselves as 10-year-old Filipino girls. We did not solicit anything unless it was offered to us," said Guyt. He said the researchers had used circumstantial evidence, including handles on the online telephony service Skype and profiles on social networks, to identify suspects.
However, the European Union policing agency Europol expressed reservations about Terre des Hommes' approach.
"We believe that criminal investigations using intrusive surveillance measures should be the exclusive responsibility of law enforcement agencies," said Europol spokesman Soren Pedersen.
(Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Kevin Liffey)