Skepticism among data-hungry academics has risen recently with at least two studies questioning the threat level posed by a host of Internet crimes involving children, including “sexting,” or sending nude photos to others, a practice some say is pervasive among young people.
One Utah officer with nearly a decade of experience investigating Internet crimes against children said skeptics may want to reserve their doubts.
Like the Catholic priest abuse scandal, this scandal may take years before its full breadth is known, said Capt. Rhett McQuiston, the director of Utah’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
Last month, an academic from York University in Toronto compared teens sharing nude photos to games of spin-the-bottle, though he acknowledged technology poses more risks.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff fired back, saying among other things that sexting photos can find their way into collections of child pornography shared on the Internet.
“Children playing doctor or spin-the-bottle don’t risk having millions of people, including child predators, looking at their nude photos from now until the end of time,” Shurtleff said in a statement.
But when video child pornography of the most vile and explicit is just a few mouse clicks away, are child pornographers really collecting grainy cell phone self-portraits of juveniles posing in the mirror with their shirts off?
They absolutely are, McQuiston said. He admits quickly that he has only anecdotes and no data to prove his point, but he provided an “educated guess” that about 25 percent of the images contained in the task force database of known child pornography originated as sexting photos.
“It’s usually a young teenager or ‘tween’ where they’re actually taking a photo of themselves without a shirt or totally nude in the bathroom mirror with their cell phone camera. I’ve seen literally thousands of those types of images,” McQuiston said.
He said he’s seen so many of those images because they end up on the computers of people the task force arrests for possession of child porn.
Sexting is happening a thousand times a day, McQuiston said, but the only time law enforcement finds out is when either the sender or receiver disseminates the photo — often on social networking sites like My Space or Facebook. Or when some unwittingly “share” it with other Internet users on a peer-to-peer file-sharing program like those used to download MP3 music files. Limewire, Kazaa and other programs fit in this category.
“If you don’t go in and turn off your computer to share what you have, then while you’re on there downloading music, someone else is looking through all your computer files, seeing what they want. … Most people don’t know that,” McQuiston said.
“Type ‘girlfriend’ or ‘nude,’ and all of a sudden, we’re inside someone’s computer, seeing what’s saved.”
At other times, a scorned teen lover or other malefactor may purposefully disseminate a photo that was intended to be private, as was the case in a recent incident Utah’s ICAC Task Force helped investigate that concluded this week in Oregon.
In 2007, Utah’s task force learned of 42 images of suspected child pornography that an Oregon man had sent to a man in Massachusetts.
According to The Salem News, at least one of the Oregon man’s Internet girlfriend’s sexting photos were included in that collection. Among that man’s home collection of child pornography, Salem News reports, were the nude photos of two other girlfriends, one of whom held a sign next to her naked body that reads “Kyle owns this.”
Once one collector has the photo, McQuiston said, it can become a regularly traded part of larger collections of similar pictures.
Because of the hunger for fresh images, McQuiston said, collectors are always on the lookout for new files and eager to share them with others.
He worries that, as cell phones with video cameras become cheaper and more pervasive, the trend could accelerate.
Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings was an early official to say publicly that the sexting trend had not spared the Beehive State. In January 2008, he released details of the case, but not the names, involving nine Farmington Junior High students who were sharing nude photos of each other, which at that time was a felony crime.
Rawlings later advocated for changes in that law, which made sexting a misdemeanor for juveniles.
He agreed with McQuiston that the problems of sexting photos can accumulate over time. He also said teens’ lives can be negatively affected even if no child predators ever see the image.
“You go to your 20-year high school reunion and Tony still has your picture,” Rawlings said. “Even if it doesn’t get disseminated to a broader base than just a circle of friends … those kids still have it, and who knows what they’re going to do with it later in college or beyond?”
Sometimes that includes protecting them from themselves
and their youthful judgments