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Unpleasant, horrific but satisfying job; THE BATTLE AGAINST HI-TECH CRIME A special unit of Merseyside Police has the harrowing task of dealing with internet child abuse.

Byline: David Bartlett reports

THEY spend hours at a time in a room in south Liverpool viewing some of the most horrific images of child abuse.

It is unpleasant work that sees these forensic examiners need to undergo constant counselling, such is the horror of some of the material they view - day in day out.

The hi-tech crime unit of Merseyside Police, run by detective inspector Paula Parker, spends about 40% of its time dealing with abusive images of children.

Mentioning the words "child pornography" in her presence leads to an immediate reaction.

"Using the term child pornography lessens the impact and tends to legitimise it," she said.

"Lets be clear about this, these are pictures of children being abused."

The chances are that a picture taken of a five-year-old being abused will still be on the internet in 30 years' time, which is why the Allerton unit's work is so important.

DI Parker said: "The aim of our work is to reduce the people viewing abusive images of children, and thereby reduce the number of children being abused."

The explosion of technology in the internet age has given paedophiles chances like never before to share images of children.

"There has been a great integration of computers into society," said Detective Sergeant Geoff Conway.

"Even people who are not techies now own computers." He said technology is playing an increasingly important part in solving crimes.

"It's not just people viewing abusive images, but if someone says they have been at home playing online on their Xbox that can provide an alibi.

"In 1997, when the unit started out we were involved in looking at more serious crimes like murders.

"Merseyside police officers have been very canny and really good at exploiting new lines of inquiry which exist because of computers."

People who once sold stolen goods, now can also do so via internet auction houses like Ebay.

One individual the unit investigated had sold more than 10,000 items on the internet.

DS Conway added: "Technology has moved on so much that a micro SD card as small as a postage stamp can contain the encyclopedia Britannica.

"We have seen examples of such memory cards carrying indecent images of children, and documents in a fraud case.

"But computer users are unable to expunge all traces of a crime."

He said what are known as "artefacts" can be recovered for forensic examination.

"Encryption and passwords hold no fear for us. If there is something on a computer, we will find it."

The take-up of broadband by the public has also had a massive impact on the work of the unit.

"It means people can flip from one website to another and download movies that were never accessible before," said DS Conway.

"We found that forensic examiners have to trawl through a lot more images and movies."

Abusive images of children are graded on a scale of one to five - five is the worst.

The severity of the pictures found on an individual's computer determines the sentence they are given at court.

"Our examiners have to count the number of images and grade them," said DS Conway.

"We are mindful of the impact it can have on an individual to be subject to it, so to look after the staff we try to break up their work.

"We also have a number of safeguards in place, if someone has had a particularly nasty job then we would give them a fraud for their next case."

The amount of time they have to spend on each case grading images can vary from days to weeks.

"Still images are one thing - you can almost put it to one side - that becomes very difficult for movies with sound."

Staff are encouraged to talk to each other about cases, and have ongoing counselling.

DS Conway said: "I have been in the police for 21 years now, and this is one of the most rewarding jobs I have done.

"To see people who have caused abuse of children prosecuted is very satisfying."

THE unit deals with about 350 cases a year, and has recently bought new software called C4P - Categorisation for Pictures.

"It works using an algorithm that produces a hash value which is akin to a digital finger print.

"The chances of two images having the same hash value is the same as winning the European Lottery 39 times."

Examiners had started to find that more than 50% of images found on computers had already been seen and graded.

However, before the introduction of the new software this had to be done from scratch each time.

Because the software effectively keeps a database of the digital finger prints, it means that examiners view between 50% and 60% less images now.

DI Parker said: "In the 18 months I have been here I have seen an increase in the workload.

"That is one of the reasons we wanted to bring in the software.

"We are going from people who had one or two images to hundreds, thousands.

"Not only does the use of the software reduce the impact on examiners from a psychological point of view, but has also freed up time." The unit has been able to re-direct its time into working "smarter" and developing new methods to catch criminals.

It is currently developing a system that would create digital finger prints for online movies.

DS Conway issued a warning to users who view adult internet pornography.

"Possession of child abuse images as a result of viewing adult pornography is no defence.

"This is a strict liability crime - possession alone is enough for conviction.

"If you delve around the depths of society enough, viewing severe adult pornography is no excuse for being caught with even one indecent image. There is no excuse. People often criticise the internet, but there are also very positive spin-offs".

DI Parker added: "It is amazing the type of people we come across that do not have criminal backgrounds.

"We have arrested people from all walks of life, who for some reason have an interest in this."

If there is something on a computer, we will find it

davidbartlett@dailypost.co.uk

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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Mar 24, 2008
Words:1067
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