By navigating the most challenging of ethical questions, and balancing sensitive content with extraordinary design, The Downloaders made our collective jaws drop.
“I smashed my computer last night and threw it into the sea.”
Few things have never been done before. This project is one of them.
After uncovering 36 million lines of hitherto unknown data from the internet, the complicated analysis of the data let us confront customers of an industry that sells a product that shouldn’t exist: Sexually abused children.
The customers, the downloaders, are invisible. Or so they think.
We found them. 95.000 worldwide. 78 in Norway. Ten men we confronted. We talked to victims and investigators in the United States, Europe and Norway.
The project was published as a three-part online documentary in text, video and graphics, in both English and Norwegian.
It led to a (still ongoing) police investigation in Belgium and a 30% increased funding to the Norwegian NCIS’s police task unit against online child abuse. A new help line is being developed by an NGO. March 7th this year, we presented the project to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.
It all began late 2013, when we exposed a young Norwegian politician who published stolen nude images of girls online. Afterwards, we dug deeper into the site where the politician had posted the pictures. This led us to a host of secretive file sharing services.
None of the services offered any information about the files they shared. Many files had nondescript names, however some of them could be found on various search engines. This revealed that many of the files contained child abuse material.
After extensive research involving advanced methods that are mostly used in penetration tests, we found that many of the services actually log the downloads – and store the logs publicly. We decided to see if we could use the logs to identify child abuse customers.
By January 2015 we had downloaded 36 million rows. Each row contained information about one downloaded file, along with user name, email and IP address of the downloader.
Now the most difficult task started, both technically and personally. We needed to know which files that contained child abuse material. Early on we had decided not to download the files ourselves: When our story was based on the assumption that downloading is a form of abuse, we couldn’t do it. It would also be illegal.
The solution was to find as many file names as possible, and use these known files in a complex analysis to identify unknown files containing child abuse material. For weeks we scanned pedophile forums and websites, many of them hidden on the darkweb, to gather file names. This dive into the darkest areas of the human mind was the most taxing part of the entire project, and has undoubtedly taken its toll on us.
Of the more popular files among the downloaders was the sexual abuse of an American baby girl, by her father. He was caught when he wanted to lend her to an undercover FBI agent on a forum for pedophiles.
We interviewed her mother. The girl is desperately trying to live a normal life, but can never have a job in public. In the months VG had contact with them, she had received 15,223 notifications on people who had been caught downloading her abuse.
In the next phase we developed our own data analysis tool that, based on our list of known files, found other files that contained child abuse. The algorithm looped through the relationships between downloads, and applied various filters we developed. Sample tests by sources at the Norwegian NCIS confirmed that the files found by the algorithm indeed contained illegal material. We explain the method to our readers here: http://www.vgtv.no/#!/video/122579/how-we-found-the-downloaders
The final step was to identify the downloaders. In total, we found 95,000 IP addresses worldwide to which child abuse images had been downloaded. By combining the log data with open information from social media, forums and other registers, we identified 78 Norwegians.
This led to some major findings: Several men had previously been in contact with the police, either suspected or convicted for downloading child abuse images. This had not deterred them from continuing.
Some of them had positions that put them in close contact with children: There were youth leaders, football coaches, music teachers. One had been approved by the child welfare services to have kids in foster care. Years earlier he had been fined for downloading child abuse material – and continued doing so.
We confronted ten of the men, using hidden microphones and cameras, as well as location tracking as a security measure for the journalist. Seven men acknowledged that our findings matched their actions. Several voluntarily told us that they had downloaded abuse images for years. It surprised us that all agreed to talk to us. Never before had they had the opportunity to share their most shameful secret. Even though some reacted with threats, many actually thanked us.
Many perpetrators think they are invisible online. We have shown that they can be identified and held accountable.
It has been an immense project. We started looking at clues late 2013. By autumn 2014 we notified our editors, and from January 2015 we worked full-time on the project until publication October 3rd.
Child abuse is a difficult topic to cover. People find reading about the fates of the children so emotionally devastating that they read something else. We turn a blind eye to their stories, to the frustration of journalists, investigators and victims.
So how did we manage to get one fifth of Norway to read our story?
In a world where catastrophes travel around the globe as shared news events, it is easy to forget that the most earthshattering stories can be found in your neighborhood. We used maps, graphics, video and text to tap into our reader’s curiosity for local news, which gave them an understanding of the global scope of the child abuse industry.
We used global data to tell a local story about an international problem. The direct effects on society has been both local and international.