No word to Scandinavian police about
potential child abusers after Australian police sting

For almost a year the Australian police made sure the world’s
largest child sexual abuse forum attracted downloaders and abusers, including Scandinavians. But two months after the undercover operation ended, no warning has been given to Norwegian or Swedish police about potential abusers in the region.

  • Håkon F. Høydal
  • Erlend Ofte Arntsen
  • Einar Otto Stangvik

Artikkelen er over to år gammel

Of the about 30 Norwegian members on the abuse website, the Norwegian police have received information about none from the Australian police unit Task Force Argos.

Now it turns out that Task Force Argos themselves haven’t found the Norwegian members.

This is according to a press release from Norway’s National Criminal Investigation Service, better known as Kripos, which they issued after being questioned on the matter by VG.

“In its articles, VG has estimated that about 30 Norwegians have operated in this forum. Based on the reporting, Kripos contacted Australian police and requested information about Norwegian users. The Australian police have informed Kripos that so far they have not found Norwegian users who can be linked to child sexual abuse material,” the press release stated (translation from Norwegian by VG, original press release here).

The whole story: How the world’s largest child sexual abuse forum was exposed

The members VG found

Blonde Scandinavian kids are the most enjoyable,” a Norwegian user wrote in the Childs Play abuse forum on 25 October 2016.

By then, the Australian police unit Task Force Argos had been running the online forum for 19 days in the wake of a dramatic police action in the United States. Argos would continue to run the online forum for 11 months, until September of this year.

To maintain their cover, the police even shared images of child abuse taking place. While the Australian police were operating the online child sexual abuse forum, it grew to become the world’s largest.

VG does not know the identity of the Norwegian forum user cited above. It knows only his user name and what he wrote publicly on the forum.

But he was not unique in being Norwegian. As VG reported previously, at least 30 Norwegians have been active on Childs Play. This figure is based on VG’s verification procedures and monitoring of the forum’s public traffic.

“I’m thinking of starting a thread on how to initiate dialogue with children online,” another Norwegian user wrote last year. He went on to suggest “pretending to be their age” or pretending to share their interests, such as Justin Bieber, the pop idols Markus & Martinus or the teen-oriented Norwegian TV series “Skam”.

Refuse to give more information

Despite the documented Norwegian-language use on the forum, Task Force Argos says they have found no Norwegian users.

The Norwegian police agency Kripos also said in the press release that it has indeed received information arising from the Childs Play forum – but from Canadian police. VG is aware that the Canadian police collaborated with Task Force Argos and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the operation targeting Childs Play. They told VG they have referred about 100 cases to other countries.

Australian expert: Police operation hard to scrutinise

The Norwegian press release did not explain why Australian police have uncovered no Norwegian users.

Task Force Argos itself has told VG it shared information with law enforcement partners after terminating the operation. Apparently Norway was not among those partners.

INFORMED THE PARTNERS: Jon Rouse, head of Task Force Argos, refuses to tell which countries have received information from their operation against «Childs Play». Foto: Marius H. Larsen / NTB Scanpix

In a telephone interview with VG, Jon Rouse, the head of Task Force Argos, declined to explain why or to specify the countries that have received information or evidence from the task force.

– We are not giving you more information, he says.

– We have sent our packets to the various police agencies that we work with. I cannot answer for what they do, nor do I know if they will answer your questions.

Police want data from newspaper

In its press release, Norway’s National Criminal Investigation Service asks VG to hand over any documentation it has about Norwegian users of Childs Play, since the Australian police claim they were unable to find any Norwegians on the forum.

VG News Editor Tora Bakke Håndlykken said that would violate the paper’s newsgathering principles.

– The information VG gets from sources or obtains through our journalistic work is for use in our stories. We do not turn over information to the authorities or the police, and this is crucial to preserving our independence. VG’s role is not to prosecute. It is to produce journalism, Håndlykken says.

WILL NOT GIVE INFO: VG News Editor Tora Bakke Håndlykken refuses to hand over to the police data from VG's investigation of the abuse website «Childs Play». Foto: Janne Møller-hansen VG

– But shouldn’t everyone, including media companies, contribute in any possible way to the fight against potential sexual abusers?

– In very special cases, we may come to a different conclusion. We have actually done so while working on this story, when we found information about ongoing abuse of a child in Norway. That time we elected to notify the Norwegian police, who later arrested the person considered to be the perpetrator, Håndlykken replies.

The case in question involved a man in western Norway who had boasted of ongoing abuse. When VG identified him in December 2016, the local police were notified and the man was subsequently arrested.

In connection with the same case, VG was in contact with the National Criminal Investigation Service in January 2017 to discuss Childs Play.

Kripos could have secured information

VG’s news editor notes that the only information in VG’s possession from the online forum was publicly available during the period the Australian police operated it.

– So I think there is reason to ask why Kripos did not secure this material in January of this year when we were first in contact with them about the forum. The information was then available to them, just as it was for VG, says Håndlykken.

Only the Australian police have the private messages, passwords, email addresses and other non-public information generally needed to identify the person behind a user name.

Canadian criminologist: Police acting as judges

Disclosing operational techniques

Troy Hunt, an Australian, is a leading internet security researcher. He is most famous for starting the website “Have I Been Pwned?”. The website contains information on several billion online user accounts. Few people know more about the challenges of conducting an online investigation.

Hunt thinks it would be strange if Task Force Argos failed to discover Norwegian or Scandinavian members of the abuse site.

– It may we’ll be that VG’s approach was more effective at identifying those involved than Argos’. It’s also possible that Argos knows the identity of the Scandinavian users, but has other reasons for not giving them to the Norwegian police, perhaps due to an ongoing investigation.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: – You could argue that Task Force Argos should share the information they have, Troy Hunt says. Foto: Photo: Private

He adds:

– You could argue that Task Force Argos should share the information they have with local law enforcement agencies in the suspects' jurisdictions. But that assumes there aren't bigger picture games at stake, for example attempts to identify other parties who may not immediately be known. There may be concerns about disclosing operational techniques they've used to identify parties; could that put future investigations at risk? It's a very nuanced issue.

Swedish police: will contact Australian police

“Swedish guy here! Interested in girls 5-13! Would like to meet someone with a daughter in that age group!” a Swedish user of Childs Play wrote on 13 March 2017.

“Swedish pedo here. Love the little girls (...). Wish I had some contact that can provide something. :-),” another Swede wrote a couple of weeks later.

VG asked the Swedish Police Authority’s National Operations Department if Task Force Argos has provided it with actionable information on Swedish users of Childs Play.

The answer was no, more than a year after the Australian police began operating the forum and more than two months after the undercover operation was terminated.

“To date, we have not received information about Swedes being involved in ‘Childs Play’,” Angelica Vallgren, press secretary for the Swedish Police Authority, writes in an email.

She explains that a long time can pass before information is received from operations in other countries:

“We don’t usually request information, since the routine is to share surplus information with other countries whenever possible. But in this case, we see in the e-mail from Verdens Gang that there seem to be Swedes, so we will contact Australia.”

Denmark and Finland: silence

“I’m looking for like-minded people from Denmark. I am 29 years old and hope to have children myself at some point. I’m attracted to little girls and women both,” a Danish user wrote on Childs Play on 28 January 2017.

Another user, calling himself “Danish pædo”, was interested in boys as young as four, while a third described videos of girls playing with dildos.

Unlike the Norwegian and Swedish police, Denmark’s National Police declined to comment on the matter, as did the Finnish police.

– I have been informed that we are unable to comment on this matter yet, said Anna Zareff, communications director for Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation.

UNICEF: – Clear violation of UN children’s convention

Kripos “should not be satisfied”

Kjell Ingolf Ropstad, the Norwegian Christian Democratic Party’s spokesman on police and judicial issues, says Norwegian authorities must not simply accept what Task Force Argos says about the case.

– When we know that Norwegian abusers have been in the forum, it’s important to do all we can to find them. Therefore, I challenge the Minister of Justice to contact the Australian Attorney General to set up a dialogue on what can be done, he says.

Nor is Petter Eide, of the Socialist Left Party, satisfied.

– It’s hard to speculate as to why the Australian police have not found what VG did, if it’s so easily available. Kripos should not be satisfied with the response from Australia. They should send a new inquiry and ask them to look more thoroughly, Eide says.

Justice Minister Per-Willy Amundsen (Progress Party) sees no reason to become personally involved.

“This is the responsibility of the prosecuting authorities. They are the ones who should direct an inquiry to Australia if they see a reason to do so,” he writes to VG.

NO REASON TO GET INVOLVED: – This is the responsibility of the prosecuting authorities. They are the ones who should direct an inquiry to Australia if they see a reason to do so, Norwegian justice Minister Per-Willy Amundsen tells VG. Foto: HELGE MIKALSEN, VG

Interpol unconcerned

Interpol is the international agency responsible for enhancing police cooperation between countries. The organisation would not comment on Task Force Argos’s failure to find Nordic users of the Childs Play forum, or on what that may say about the procedures for sharing investigative data.

“We do not comment on national operations,” an Interpol spokesperson said. “The countries themselves decide what information they want to share with Interpol or other countries. Then we facilitate that.”

Interpol already has a database of child sexual abuse images that is available to all member states. However, the agency sees no need for a similar shared database containing raw data from police operations like the one executed against Childs Play.

“In our experience, countries are doing a good job sharing raw data from child abuse investigations. A separate database is not needed. We already have a framework for how the sharing is supposed to occur, which works,” the spokesperson asserts.

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