How to Catch a Pedophile Online
How a virtual girl brought a real-life predator to justice
Photo: Courtesy Terre Des Hommes/Motek Entertainment
Friday, July 5, 2013
Burpengary, Queensland, Australia
It was at 2:16pm on a warm July evening that Scott Robert Hansen first met Sweetie.
Sitting alone in front of a computer screen in his home not far from Brisbane, the single 36-year-old logged into a chat room and typed in the username “2 cam with kid.” Then he clicked “Kids Chat.”
That’s when her username appeared: “9 f philippines.”
Hansen knew that in the shady online networks he frequented, those letters could signify only one thing: a nine-year-old girl from the Philippines. Heart pounding, he typed: “Wanna chat or cam with older? I like asian chicks, u horny for action…i’m naked, ever seen a guy naked?”
After a few seconds a single word popped up: “Yes.” The conversation quickly moved to Skype at the girl’s request. Hansen called her from his personal account, where his name, photograph and location were listed.
“I with me sister she is 8,” typed the Filipino girl. “If you likes we does 20 minutes sexy show for $2.”
“OK, please video call me, I can do that,” wrote an excited Hansen.
Had the girl turned on her video cam, Hansen would have seen what he was expecting: a thin, brown-skinned, pre-pubescent child sitting at a keyboard. The girl would nod complacently, adjusting her webcam and typing out responses while, thousands of miles away, Hansen negotiated her purchase for a few dollars an hour.
But Hansen would never see the girl, for there was no need for her to appear: he had already been caught.
Two years earlier
Hans Guijt was baffled. As the director of projects for the Dutch arm of the children’s welfare organization Terre des Hommes, he’d been visiting the Philippines for years, working to solve its rampant child prostitution problem. Terre des Hommes had been fighting to protect vulnerable children for decades through its branches across Europe and Canada. Hans had been with the organization since 1999, taking the lead on ambitious projects around the world. Before that, the feisty 58-year-old was Greenpeace’s campaign director. He had a track record for getting things done.
But as he wandered the streets of Cebu’s slums, Hans marvelled at how the kids who had once sold their bodies here had all but disappeared.
Something else had changed, too. On nearly every corner, what had once been a shack was now an “internet cafe,” These rudimentary iron-roofed huts housed rows of cheap computers that connected to the web for a few cents a minute.
Hans noticed that kids were sitting in front of these screens. Through conversations with children at drop-in centres and shelters, he discovered a vast new phenomenon sweeping impoverished Filipino communities: webcam child sex tourism.
Easy access to the Internet was allowing individuals anywhere to purchase live webcam sex shows from a growing number of Filipino children. A fee would be negotiated and then paid via Western Union. A pimp or someone else over 18 went to collect the money, and the show would begin. Usually one or two girls would hold a towel as a makeshift screen in front of which another would take off her clothes and “perform” for the camera.
While some children made contact on their own, others were sold by pimps through so-called “cyber sex dens” and still others were offered up for sale by their own parents.
Hans consulted with the team back in The Hague and then ordered an intensive six-month investigation of the phenomenon. He was horrified by its findings. Tens of thousands of children in the Philippines were suffering online abuse, found to be just as mentally damaging as physical sexual abuse.
Police were doing little to curb the abuse. Only six men had ever been sentenced for the crime—and an estimated 750,000 individuals were online at any given moment looking to prey on children.
Determined to get the word out, Hans invited two Dutch journalists to the Philippines to witness what was happening. One, a seasoned reporter named Elsbeth Stoker, wrote a feature for the Dutch daily newspaper de Volkskrant. It was published on May 29, 2012 under the headline, “All the men were naked and playing with themselves.”
That same May morning Mark Woerde was enjoying his coffee and flipping through the newspaper when the article by Stoker caught his attention. As the co-founder and strategy director of the Amsterdam-based advertising agency Lemz, Mark believed that advertising experts like himself should be a force for good. He was always on the lookout for new projects. As he read the article, his mind was flooded with ideas. He looked up the number for Terre des Hommes and picked up the phone.
Six months later, three men sat close together in the boardroom at Terre des Hommes headquarters in The Hague. Joining Mark Woerde and Hans Guijt was Albert-Jaap van Santbrink, CEO of Terre des Hommes.
Now Mark presented his perspective: the problem of online child sex tourism was one of supply and demand, and it was clear that the demand side needed to be addressed. He had a plan: they would create a virtual girl and use her to infiltrate chat rooms and catch predators in the crime of soliciting sexual performance. Once she had caught enough to illustrate the scope of the problem, they would reveal their findings to the public.
At first Albert-Jaap was apprehensive. It was a complicated project for Terre des Hommes and one with potential legal implications. But Mark and Hans were adamant that the approach would work. With Albert-Jaap convinced, Hans was made team leader.
At the end of the meeting, they gave the girl a name: Sweetie.
From its beginning in spring 2013 “Project Sweetie” was a group effort. Terre des Hommes would spent an estimated 450,000 euros on it from start to finish. Other contributors would fund some two-thirds of the campaign through donated time and services.
Mark, Hans and Albert-Jaap agreed that “Project Sweetie” would be top secret until it was completed. They didn’t want online predators savvy to their sting. Nor did they want lawyers accusing them of entrapment or policemen insisting police work be left to them.
Mark brought three trusted associates from Lemz into the loop, and they quietly reached out to Motek Entertainment, a cutting-edge agency specializing in 3D modelling and animation. Motek’s lead animator Oshri Even-Zohar was eager to join the project, and the creation of Sweetie began.
First, Oshri and three other Motek artists created a repository of references from hundreds of images of Filipino girls. Using these, they designed Sweetie’s facial features—everything from the bones in her cheeks to the thickness of her skin.
Next, the team designed Sweetie in two dimensions, painting and drawing her with different expressions and from various angles. What did Sweetie look like when sad? Happy? Embarrassed? The team created a vast mood board and then modelled it in 3D.
Finally, it was time to use motion capture to animate Sweetie. An actress specialising in mime acted out the 25 movements Sweetie would be able to perform, from nodding yes, shaking her head no, smiling, adjusting her web cam and typing, to getting up and exiting the frame. Each was synced with a keyboard command so that Sweetie’s responses could be easily controlled in real time.
The entire process took close to six months
Then Oshri proudly presented the petite brown-skinned girl to Mark, Hans, Albert-Jaap and the rest of the small team. Sweetie had to be convincing. He walked her through her range of movements, then turned to face his audience. Every single member was smiling.
Sweetie was a go.
It was July 2013 and the team had rented an empty warehouse space in the desolate industrial harbour of Amsterdam. They boarded up the windows. When the landlord asked questions, Mark said they were shooting the new IKEA catalogue and couldn’t have any leaks.
Then they loaded in laptops, screens, routers, online security gear and webcams. All the computers but one had been programmed with IP addresses that appeared to be in the Philippines. The remaining laptop was “air gapped,” never having been connected to the Internet and was therefore safe from hacking. This was where data on the identities of the predators would be stored.
Then the infiltration began. Four operators specially scouted by Mark entered chat rooms that Hans knew were playgrounds for predators. The operators worked in pairs. While one engaged the predator with Sweetie, the other used clues from the chat to search the web and identify the individual.
Hans watched as Sweetie entered her first chat room. No sooner had she posted her username than requests to make contact flooded in. Men from all corners of the globe were eager to share personal information—emails, Skype addresses, real names, naked photographs—in the hopes of purchasing webcam sex with a pre-pubescent girl. Sometimes they demanded a glimpse of Sweetie before revealing their identity. When they did, she would appear, her movements guided by the keystrokes of her operators.
Hans was shocked by the obscene requests these men were making. Bestiality. Rape scenes. Violence. Amplifying the horror was the fact that Hans was a father himself. His twin boys were almost the same age as Sweetie.
The operation continued for ten weeks. Sweetie entered just 19 of the 40,000 chat rooms the FBI estimates are populated by predators. Yet she interacted with no fewer than 21,172 men.
On the air-gapped laptop was a list of the real identities of more than 1,000 predators from 71 countries around the world. Scott Robert Hansen’s name and location there.
On November 4, 2014, at Terre des Hommes headquarters, Albert-Jaap looked out over the crowd of reporters and television cameras that surrounded the podium where he stood. Adjusting the microphone, he broke a story that would in a matter of days be a global news phenomenon.
“This is the largest sexual abuse case in history,” said Albert-Jaap. He explained how Terre des Hommes researchers had identified so many child predators. “Video footage of those predators has been handed over to the police authorities today.”
The Dutch police duly passed on the files to Europol. Those concerning individuals outside Europe went to Interpol, which distributed them to police in the relevant countries. Scott Robert Hansen’s file finally landed on the desks of the Australian Federal Police.
Tuesday, February 3, 2014
Hansen looked on helplessly as federal officers clicked through the files on his home computer, knowing what they would find: 11 hours of the most depraved child sexual exploitation films, along with 79 images of child pornography. By the end of the day he would be in police custody.
On Tuesday, October 21, 2014, Judge Julie Ryrie looked down at Hansen from her bench in Brisbane District Court. The records showed that he was no first time offender. He’d flashed young kids on numerous occasions and even attempted to snatch a child on her way home from school—crimes for which he had done prison time.
Now Hansen was facing charges not just for possession of child exploitation material and breach of recogninisance but for “using a carriage service to transmit indecent communication to a person under 16 years of age.”
Hansen had used the internet to Skype indecent videos of himself to Sweetie. Yet this “person” was not a child at all, but rather a team of men posing as a little girl. Hansen had already pled guilty on all three counts. Now how would the judge sentence Hansen, with the knowledge that Sweetie was in fact not a real girl at all.
In her closing comments, public prosecutor Laura-Leigh Manville didn’t mince words describing the obscene acts Hansen had performed before the camera and Sweetie, all the while believing Sweetie to be a young Filipina. She asked that the judge treat this case as if Sweetie were a real person.
In sentencing, Judge Ryrie said Hansen had “a protracted interest in targeting children in various ways,” The fact the girl was not real was irrelevant, she said: “If you believe that’s a nine-year-old girl, then that’s the law, that’s good enough.” She sentenced Hansen to 12 months in prison.
It was Sweetie’s first conviction.
Since Hansen’s sentencing, men in Belgium, Denmark, UK , the Netherlands, Poland and the US have been arrested for their interactions with Sweetie and at least nine have beenconvicted. There are probably more convictions but exact numbers are difficult to track as no one is obliged to report them to Terre des Hommes.
Sweetie’s work has just begun. She has now been turned into an automated chatbot, called Sweetie 2.0, that can have convincing online conversations without an operator. Testing of the new version started in September. This phase will come to an end in April. Information on the worst repeat perpetrators encountered during the test run will be passed onto Europol and Interpol, and the software will be offered to law enforcement agencies around the world.
“One in four individuals who start with watching child pornography will then move on to hands-on child sexual abuse. Early intervention with Sweetie 2.0 could stop that,” says Hans.
With the collaboration of police forces internationally, Sweetie 2.0 has the potential to make predators like Hansen think twice before attempting to abuse children on the other side of the world.