How Spain’s Civil Guard used the deep web to catch a pedophile

The authorities managed to track down a man who had 63,000 photos of naked children on a cellphone he inadvertently lost

Civil Guard officers tracked down the culprit.
Civil Guard officers tracked down the culprit.EL PAÍS

Last year in June, a fight broke out near a school in Granada. Few details are known about it. What is known is that a 26-year-old man lost his cellphone fleeing from the scene. Another man found it a few hours later. The phone had no SIM card and no PIN was needed to unblock it, so he tried to find a number on it that would help him contact the owner. What he found instead were photos of naked children, aged six months and up, some particularly disturbing, according to the police. In total, the phone contained 63,000 photos of minors.

The person who found the mobile device, a resident of the town of Armilla, handed it over to the Civil Guard. It was then sent to the Technological Crimes Unit (Edite) of the Civil Guard’s judiciary police department. Edite’s four-member team told EL PAÍS how the search began to find the owner.

Nobody is who they say they are and nothing is what it seems Edite technological crime unit

They had no idea who he was, but they did know where to look: the deep web, the part of the World Wide Web that is not indexed by search engines. Organ trafficking, hit men, drug trading, child pornography, manuals on how to make explosives, weapons and ammunition can all be found here. “Any type of crime you can imagine, you can find,” explain the Edite officers.

The team was granted permission by a judge to extract the data and clone the phone. Using a Universal Forensic Extraction Device, the team transferred all the cellphone data bit by bit. “This preserved the evidence so that no changes could be made either before or after the investigation. There is proof that the evidence was kept just as it was,” says Edite team member Elías (who did not want to use his real name).

The Civil Guard officers began to work with the copy of the cellphone. They headed for the deep web, the only place where they could trace the data contained on the phone. “You don’t just arrive and jump in. It works by word of mouth. There is nothing indexed on the deep web. You can’t go to a search engine and type in ‘weapons’ and receive a list of pages. It’s all very sinister and selective,” explain the agents.

Using an undercover agent is one way to work in the deep web. But in any situation, privacy is key. The team explains, “If you go in you have to do so with security measures in place, otherwise you’re done for. Nobody is who they say they are, and nothing is what it seems.”

“You believe you are buying weapons but you’re maybe talking to a hacker who, while they keep you busy, is stealing your information, data, IP address, and taking all your photographs and your life from your computer to sell it back later in the same place.”

The 26-year-old suspect faces a maximum of six years in prison

After working for several months in the deep web, visiting online forums and descending into the underworld of child pornography, the Edite team had enough information to identify the owner of the lost cellphone. They had found the web domain which he used to swap thousands of pornographic photos with other people.

The man was arrested a month ago in Granada. They knocked on the door of his family apartment. The suspect,  who was living with his parents, came from a humble, working class family. “They were very afflicted,” say the agents. The Edite team seized more devices with pedophile content and investigated to see whether more people were involved with his criminal activities.

Under the new Penal Code, the mere intent to meet up with a minor is considered a crime – whether or not it happens. The charges for keeping child pornography range from possession to possession and distribution, to production. In cases where there are no aggravating factors, the punishment for possessing and distributing child pornography is between five and nine years in prison. However, because there is no proof that the accused distributed the images, the 26-year-old is facing a maximum of six years in prison.

English version by Melissa Kitson.


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