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P2P searches touted as tool against child abuse

Senator places blind faith in Fairplay

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A Democrat Senator has proposed monitoring peer-to-peer networks for illegal files. Senator Joe Biden proposed the plan at a Senate Judiciary sub-committee hearing about child exploitation on the net.

Sen Biden tabled a bill to increase resources for regional computer forensic labs and boost tools available to fight online child abuse last June.

The bill would authorise $1bn over the next eight years to fund the appointment of 250 federal agents assigned to track and prosecute incidents of child abuse.

The committee heard testimony from Grier Weeks, executive director of the National Association to Protect Children, on a system in place in Wyoming called Operation Fairplay. The system has reportedly identified more than 600,000 unique computers engaged in trafficking images of child abuse since October 2005.

Special Agent Flint Waters said the technology allowed investigators to map the kinds of child abuse file transfers taking place across the country. The technology has allowed investigators to mount operations involving peer-to-peer file-sharing applications, chat rooms, websites, and mobile communications, according to Waters.

CNet reports that investigators log onto P2P networks and search for files containing keywords likely to be associated with child abuse. They download the files. Meanwhile, the Fairplay software keeps a log of the IP addresses of the machines from which the file is uploaded, sometimes displaying its geographic location. This information is used to justify warrants.

The system was praised by Sen Biden, who called for its expansion nationwide. He added that it was "pretty easy to pick out the person engaged in either transmitting or downloading violent scenes of rape, molestation" by looking at file names, CNet reports.

Attempting to guess the content of a file based solely on its name is obviously fraught with difficulties. Miscreants would only need to change the file names into something innocuous. And that's before we even consider the use of Tor anonymiser nodes or encrypted P2P traffic. There's also a possibility that compromised machines owned by innocent third parties might be misused as a repository for child abuse images.

Operation Orr - the largest investigation of child abuse networks to date - involved investigating suspects whose credit cards were used to access a child porn portal. That's a more robust approach and even that has become the target of complaints that victims of credit card abuse have unfairly become targets of child abuse investigations.

Over-reliance of systems like Fairplay is even more fraught with difficulties, limitations Sen Biden would do well to consider. ®

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