Investigators uncover pornography in portable hideaways

Jason Tsai

HACKENSACK, N.J. (MCT) — It used to be that people who collected child pornography hid their illegal smut deep inside computers, or stashed printed photographs somewhere for safekeeping.

That’s changing.

Law enforcement officials say they are increasingly coming across portable digital devices — from flash drives to cellphones — being used to store sexually explicit photos and video of children.

“There’s a convergence happening,” said Passaic County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Joseph Del Russo. “The ubiquity of these devices is being met by those who want to document and store images of crimes against children.”

When authorities recently searched the car and home of a Paterson, N.J., man accused of manufacturing and possessing child pornography, for instance, they found images from “both worlds,” Del Russo said.

“He had dozens of printed pictures in his car — around 80 or 90 pages worth,” the assistant prosecutor said. “But he also had memory sticks that are about the size of a stick of chewing gum, containing all sorts of photographs. And that represents the new.”

Of the nearly 125 child porn cases annually investigated by Bergen County prosecutor’s detectives, the majority now involve some sort of digital storage media, said Andrew Donofrio, who heads the computer crimes unit.

They’ve confiscated digital storage as mundane as burned CDs and as crafty as a ballpoint pen that unscrews to reveal a flash drive, he said.

“It used to be that one case could yield additional computers,” Donofrio said. “But today, one case can also yield lots of smaller, harder-to-find devices.”

In Bergen, the evidence is copied and stored onto a towering hard drive, larger than the common refrigerator, at a data center in Paramus.

“Anything capable of being interfaced with a computer we now take and analyze,” Donofrio said. “We’ve had to become very aware of all potential digital storage locations.”

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales addressed the changes at a recent conference for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

“If you consider the sheer volume of electronic memory available to criminals — every hard drive, flash card, memory stick, iPod, camera phone, and removable media — extracting evidence from this sea of information is a daunting task for investigators,” Gonzales said.

A few months earlier, investigators from the Texas Attorney General’s Office raided the home of a San Marcos man on a tip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and found an iPod containing videos of child pornography. He eventually pleaded guilty to possession and promotion charges — reportedly the first such case involving an iPod.

Among the most popular types of digital storage found during porn investigations are USB flash drives, like the ones confiscated in the Paterson case. A 1GB flash drive that normally retails for around $40 can store hundreds of high-quality pictures.

“On a couple of recent occasions we’ve seized cellphones with pictures of young children,” Del Russo said. “Not just stored pictures, but actual phones being used to take pictures of children.”

Also being used with greater frequency are digital camera memory cards and external hard drives, he said.

Because of this shift to electronic storage, computer and electronic repair shops have replaced the U.S. Postal Service and professional photo developers as businesses that often tip off authorities.

“A lot of child pornography was once mail-ordered from Scandinavian or Southeast Asian countries to the United States,” said Del Russo. “There were often stings set up by postal inspectors in those days.”

Old film photographs have largely disappeared, replaced by an estimated 200 new digital photos of child pornography posted daily on the Internet, according to a 2006 U.S. Department of Justice report.

“We’re finding all manner of storage devices when we execute search warrants,” said Michael Drewniak, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark, which prosecutes more than a dozen child pornography cases annually. “It presumably makes it easier for these types to trade amongst themselves, and to hide the evidence.”

But not necessarily: A common misconception among those who collect child porn is that transferring the images onto a portable device from a computer makes the evidence tougher to find.

“Rarely is anything truly deleted,” said state police Detective John Gorman. “We’ve simply had to broaden the scope of our investigations, from just computers or laptops to these new thumb drives and other portable devices.”

In one case, a man was caught downloading child pornography off a Montvale Public Library computer and onto an external drive under the desk.

“We theorized he was pushing it there so no one would see it,” Donofrio said.

Jason Tsai

The Record