The problem with porn

     In 1989, a famous self-proclaimed pornography addict described his relationship with sexually explicit materials and how he believes it related to his homicidal criminal acts in an interview:

     "As a young boy of 12 or 13 I encountered, outside the home ... softcore pornography. Young boys explore the sideways and byways of their neighborhoods, and in our neighborhood, people would dump the garbage. From time to time, we would come across books of a harder nature — more graphic. This also included detective magazines, etc. The most damaging kind of pornography — and I'm talking from hard, real, personal experience — is that, that involves violence and sexual violence. The wedding of those two forces — as I know only too well — brings about behavior that is too terrible to describe.

     "... I'm not blaming pornography. I'm not saying it caused me to go out and do certain things. I take full responsibility for all the things that I've done. That's not the question here. The issue is how this kind of literature contributed and helped mold and shape the kinds of violent behavior."

     The now infamous interview was recorded on the eve prior to Ted Bundy's execution 21 years ago. Bundy is thought to have killed at least 28 young women and girls. He was finally convicted and sentenced to death for killing a 12-year-old girl and dumping her body in a pig sty. Though this story is an extreme example representing a convicted killer's opinion on how pornography affected his criminal compulsions, it shouldn't be discounted. Much of what Bundy relates in the interview with Dr. James Dobson, a psychologist and founder of Focus on the Family, mirrors the story of other porn addicts.

     In our contemporary world of tech saturation, with folks finding their entertainment, socializing, work and play online, there exists a whole new influencing factor that wasn't around in Bundy's time: the Internet. Sex crime investigators and a recovering porn addict say the breadth of what is available online, the anonymity the Internet provides and its omnipresence have created a perfect storm for porn to escalate beyond a problem.

Another man's story

     Another man's tale begins eerily similar to a man who was killed in order to protect society. Michael Leahy explains how for him, simple pornography use became addictive.

     Leahy, today in his 50s, got his foot in the door early in what would become the technological boom of the late '80s and into the '90s. Just out of college and married to his college sweetheart, Leahy says he began to indulge in online pornography that would later take from him all the foundations he had laid up until that point.

     "There's no warning label on this stuff," Leahy says.

     In the 1990s, Leahy was an all-American man with a storybook life: college graduate, married to his college love, starting their family and making his living at the technological giant IBM. But it wouldn't be long before Leahy fell under the spell of what he now touts as the all-American fixation: pornography online.

     He considers himself a recovering pornography addict. However, according to the classifications used by mental health professionals in the United States, pornography and sex have yet to be written into The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, and their diagnostic criteria defined.

     Leahy says that like some individuals casually seeking out porn through the Internet, he became obsessed with online porn in a way that would cost him his family and relationships.

     The self-professed former porn addict and author of "Porn Nation: Conquering

     America's #1 Addiction" (Northfield Publishing, 2008) and two other tomes on the subject, now makes his living speaking about his path toward addiction, recovery and the plague that he says is taking over America's computers. He tours college campuses around the world, warning of the dangers of porn.

Increased diet

     Leahy has never committed a sex crime, but he acknowledges that his addiction had lead him to undertake unlawful behaviors, such as voyeurism and exhibitionism, when he would masturbate in the window of a motel during business trips, peering into neighboring buildings to stare at women and allowing for himself to potentially be seen.

     Leahy had first experienced porn magazines as a child and had occasionally picked them up throughout his teenage and college years.

     "I had a fascination with voyeurism and exhibitionism when I was very young," Leahy explains. "I had even experimented with that and had a lot of fantasy about that but never really seen any material on it. Before the Internet, my diet was pretty steadily made up of Playboys or an occasional Penthouse [where] you didn't see those kinds of scenarios." But when he began working for IBM, he had a whole new influencing factor to increase what he calls his "relationship with the material." As an employee, Leahy had access to a higher speed connection at work than most Internet-capable homes during that time, enabling him a doorway to what was quickly becoming a vast stockpile of images online without the risk of getting caught with explicit material.

     "When I got on the Internet and started finding these voyeurism sites and exhibitionism sites and all these other categories of things that I never even knew existed, it really increased the amount of sexual stimulation that I started to experience," Leahy says. "A person usually has a certain pension for something. For some, it's children — child pornography and offending. For others it may be exposing themselves or exhibitionism or voyeurism, that whole deal. So that's where this really crosses over from being something where you're abusing yourself to something that's abusing others."

     Nick Boffi, a Fairfax County, Va., detective working in the child exploitation units for about five years for a total of 17 combined years with the department, says he has seen similar step-by-step transitions take place with the child enticement cases he has worked over the last few years.

     "Many of my cases start out with just child pornography," Boffi says. "That didn't do it for [the offender] anymore and they moved on to the actual enticement. The reason they're going for the enticement is that they're not getting the thrill of looking at the child porn, they actually want to participate in some sort of act."

     He explains that though he would not lump all cases and all offenders into this category, he's seen a pattern form over years.

     "That's just statistics; that's not saying that yes, 100-percent of the time [a suspect enticing a child online will] have child pornography," Boffi says. "But in order to quench their thirst before actually doing the enticement, they're building up their fantasy by looking at the child pornography. And then they go the next step with the child enticement."

     Leahy says he became dissatisfied with his sex life and began consuming porn regularly at work until eventually, like Bundy mentions, the fantasy was not enough to quench his sexual thirst and Leahy began having extramarital affairs to satisfy his sexual appetite. Leahy's addiction did not drive him to break any laws — his affairs were with consenting adults. But Leahy acknowledges that Bundy's 1989 pornography confessions sound a little too familiar for comfort.

     "You reach a point where the pornography only goes so far, you reach that jumping off point where you begin to wonder if maybe actually doing it would give that which is beyond just reading it or looking at it," Bundy says in the 1989 interview. Like for Bundy, the material acted as a stepping stone into a realm where Leahy says he broke his moral codes; acts like masturbating in a window and having an extramarital affair that he had not thought he was capable of before he built an appetite for through viewing online erotica.

E-Porn

     The Internet is not the problem, it is excessive user behavior that starts the ball rolling toward addiction.

     It's difficult to pin down an exact figure of how vast the online porn world is. According to one news source, every second more than 28,000 Internet users are viewing it and 372 people are using search engines to find it (2009 CNBC.com report). According to a survey, there are almost 40 million users; other estimates pin porn as about 40 percent of all Internet traffic; and various sources between 2001 to 2007 estimate revenue anywhere from $1 to $14 billion, depending on the source. According to comScore Media Metrix, there were 63.4 million unique visitors to adult Web sites in December of 2005, reaching 37 percent of the Internet audience. A Family Safe Media figure puts 2006 Internet porn revenue at $2.84 million. What can be derived from these figures is that if they're within the ballpark of the true numbers, online porn is big business and growing.

     Boffi says that the most common form of pornography he encounters is digital. In investigating cases through the child enticement unit, Boffi says he rarely sees a stash of snapshots, but rather the collector has built an electronic image base.

     "It's very rare, unless the person is an older person, that they have actual photographs," Boffi says. "With the access to the Internet, it's just as easy to collect the child pornography online. It's an easier way to manage it, maintain it and also give some kind of privacy, as opposed to having just pictures lying around the house."

     Leahy says he was able to feed his appetite for viewing (legal) pornography because of the anonymity and nearly risk-free forum of electronic porn. Even in the early days, Leahy explained, individuals would have to transport porn onto CD-ROMs and floppy disks. Today's capabilities include wireless technology access and handheld devices, creating one's own portable peep show, and producing what Leahy dubs a perfect storm for excessive, addictive behaviors to develop.

Portable peep show

     Today's Internet ecosystem has another influencing factor that did not exist when Leahy was at his heaviest level of porn consumption — mobile Internet access and portable storage devices. These new ways to view and collect Internet smut via smartphones like an iPhone or BlackBerry can help criminals evade discovery from spouses and family, and for monitored convicted offenders, elude supervising authorities from detecting it. Wireless access to the Internet makes it easy to access and download portable e-Porn on devices to take anywhere.

     The portable Internet access and myriad ways to connect are what complicate the monitoring of convicted offenders. Attempts to collect passwords, control environment (no computer/Internet in home) are nearly worthless, as the ubiquity of computing and Internet access make home supervision moot.

     Boffi says Fairfax County monitors approximately 600 sex offenders. Boffi's unit primarily performs work and home verification checks on the county's registered offenders to be sure they are reporting to the county truthfully. Though he is not a probation agent, when he has accompanied officers on home visits, he says he doesn't recall finding any contraband. He says that if the offender wanted to view porn or start a child porn archive, the ways to evade discovery are too easy.

     Leahy says for a recovering sex or pornography addict, slipping back into old habits is always a concern. Without making that restricted individual accountable for his or her online activity, the temptation could be too great. And all sources agree that evading detection of prohibited use is far too easy in this digital climate.

     If the individual really wanted to, he or she could go to a library or to a friend's house to use the Internet. They could also hide a laptop or smartphone when the probation officer's coming over. Boffi adds that though the probation officer can search through anything, the ability to hide small, portable devices works against them.

     "Think about how small electronic devices are, like a thumb drive," Boffi says. "If you had a thumb drive that you downloaded child pornography on and just slipped it in a junk drawer of a kitchen. Thumb drives are small enough that we're going to miss that. Unless we're specifically looking for that thumb drive and know kind of where it's at, we're going to miss that in a cursory search."

Not a problem

     The debate over whether online pornography is the cause of serious societal ills, or merely harmless entertainment, is not without its opposition. Some groups say online porn is not a problem and actively engage in public discussions to argue their respective sides. Ron Jeremy, porn actor and industry figure head who has engaged in multiple public debates, including some with Leahy, campaigns for the pro-porn argument. Jeremy says porn is not the problem. From 2007 to 2009, he was part of a pornography debate tour dubbed the "XXX Porn Debate" that tackled the porn issue. Representatives from companies that deliver adult content on the Internet have long argued that their programming contributes to healthy relationships and can be educational.

     Nick Boffi says that pornography isn't innately a problem. In fact, he says regular, non-criminal consumption of online pornography can be a normal part of life.

     "Just viewing regular pornography, even in excess, is not going to make someone do something they don't want to do," he explains. But he emphasizes that there is no casual use of sexual images of children. "Just possessing it, [that person is] already committing a crime and getting a thrill out of that," he explains. "And once that thrill runs out they're going to look for an additional thrill, which would be the meeting of a kid or the actual committing of an abuse, like taking their own photographs and posting them."

Chicken and egg

     Leahy has remarried and rebuilt the relationships he lost due to his addiction. He has been on a mission to maintain sobriety from porn and raise awareness of the issue since 2000. He works mentoring others who say they've become addicted to pornography or sex as well. He reveals that realizing how his non-criminal addictive behaviors echoed those of convicts like Ted Bundy remind him of the danger he believes online porn poses.

     Though every pornography consumer's story does not reach the level of homicidal criminal acts that Bundy's did, sex crime task force specialists and a recovering addict allow that online pornography may influence criminal sexual activity in a harmful way. Leahy is still hoping the APA will recognize sex and porn addiction in the DSM, the standard classification of mental disorders and their diagnostic criteria used by mental health professionals, and says he'll consider that a win for the fight against online deviant sexual behavior and related criminal activity.

     But without the easy, anonymous access to pornography online, do sex crime investigators believe their work today would be different? Boffi says it's hard to say because this creates a sort of chicken vs. egg predicament.

     "I've never thought about it because I couldn't even think of the world without the Internet," he explains. "The reality is the computer is here. The reality is that there is a lot of pornography online."

     As long as there are still law enforcement agents dedicated to finding those people committing sex crimes and people like Leahy raising awareness of how porn can become harmful, Internet porn and people will continue to find a way to coexist.

New tech tackles child pornography

     Enough is Enough — an organization that works to raise public awareness about the dangers of Internet pornography, sexual predators and other Internet threats — estimates that 20 percent of Internet porn involves children, 20,000 child pornography images are posted weekly on the Internet and that the child pornography industry is worth about $3 billion a year.

     Investigators say the majority of the individuals who access child pornography online also store and manage digital inventories of it. With today's technological capabilities, it is difficult for officers to find and capture the illegal images. To aid in the fight against child porn, several companies have developed software that is able to help police search and identify explicit images of children.

     MacForensicsLab Field Agent — Al Lewis has worked for eight years as a federal agent investigating forensics and cyber crime. He says law enforcement has just hit the tip of the iceberg in its campaign to thwart child porn. As an agent with the Secret Service, he says about 65 percent of the forensics work was dedicated to child pornography. He now works as the director of forensic development with MacForensicsLab and teaches at Marymount University in Arlington, Va. "The Internet in general has allowed these people to come out of the closet. It used to be they had a huge vetting process because they're risking their freedom every time they give in to their desires," Lewis explains. "The Internet gave them that anonymous nature so they can do these things now. And the truth is there's more than law enforcement can handle."

     In addition to his background in forensics, as a professor at Marymount Lewis explains he teaches cyber crime and digital terrorism, which includes covering child exploitation.

     Lewis says that the MacForensicsLab Field Agent software was developed to help U.S. Customs officers quickly identify the presence of child pornography on a computer coming into the country without the need for advanced technical skill. The skin tone analyzing software, Field Agent, is available to law enforcement free as a download.

     Microsoft PhotoDNA — Microsoft has developed a new technology that it says improves on previous basic hashing or simple hashing detection technologies, creating a more intuitive method that can also mask the image to protect law enforcement and others from exposure to child sex abuse images. PhotoDNA can seek and identify a photo based on the unique signature of the digital image, even if it is altered by compression, resizing, color change, adding text, etc. PhotoDNA calculates the distinct characteristics of a digital image in order to match it to other copies of that same image present on the Web. Though Microsoft declined to participate in this story, the company announced the new tech in a news conference in December. Brad Smith, Microsoft's senior vice president and general counsel says the company's "goal with this technology is to help disrupt the spread of known child sex abuse images online."

     In December 2009, Microsoft revealed its new development to nix illicit images of children from the Internet, and has donated PhotoDNA to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

     Dartmouth Professor of Computer Science Hany Farid, who worked with Microsoft to develop the advanced mathematical computational technique, explains that previous hashing technologies were weak because changing the image hash value through digital editing was so easy. "The problem was that the signature was extremely fragile — the tiniest change to the image and the signature would be completely different," Farid says. The advantage of PhotoDNA is that even as images fly through the Internet and they are changed a little bit, the technology can still detect it. "The PhotoDNA technology extends the signature … so that even if you change the image a little bit, we can still find it."

     PhotoDNA seeks out copies of known images of child rape, which President & CEO of the NCMEC Ernie Allen says are copied and shared among pedophiles, to remove them. Allen says that stopping the perpetuation of the known images can lend a hand in ending the re-victimization of the children depicted and prevent companies in the Internet service provider (ISP) industry from "unwittingly hosting or distributing these photos of child sexual abuse."

     SurfRecon Inc. — Kent Davis, an officer supervising sex offenders with the Utah Department of Corrections Adult Probation & Parole, says his office has been using the SurfRecon pornography detection software for about two years. "It has what's called a crawling program that basically crawls through [the suspect] hard drive and looks for any illicit material [or] photos," Davis says.

     The Orem, UT-based SurfRecon's rapid-image-analysis tool, SurfRecon Elite, can be used on almost any computer system including Windows-, Macintosh-, and Linux-based systems. Davis explains that unlike some of the other software available, the SurfRecon product is on a USB flash memory device, and using it is as easy as plugging into the laptop or PC to be searched. He says because it's portable and works quickly, it's a "great tool for law enforcement."

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