Cracking Down on the Sharing of Child Sex Abuse Images in an Unlikely Place: Our Own Government Networks

Contributing Authors: Nelson O. Bunn, Jr., Executive Director & Frank Russo, Esq., Director of Government and Legislative Affairs, NDAA

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Photo: Pexels/Nagy Arnold

For far too long, Department of Defense (DoD) computers have been used to distribute child pornography involving an unknown number of victims. As prosecutors, we have grappled to find the right solution to address this horrific problem and ensure that federal government networks do not serve as a platform for abusers. Fortunately, the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act included key elements of the END Network Abuse Act which will upgrade the training and technical capacity of the DoD to combat the ongoing exploitation of children on the agency’s servers.

Dangers involving the DoD network were first revealed back in 2009 through Project Flicker, a nationwide, multi-agency investigatory effort, that found that potentially hundreds of DoD affiliated individuals had subscribed to or engaged with child pornography websites. This revelation promoted an internal inquiry by the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, which in turn identified well over a hundred individuals as suspects in cases involving online child exploitation. Yet, only 20 percent of these cases were investigated, finding that those suspects had used their government devices and the DoD network to share child pornography. This means a majority of this suspected child exploitation has not been prosecuted, delaying justice for hundreds of victims.

According to a 2018 review by the National Criminal Justice Training Program, the DOD network ranked 19th out 2,891 computer networks for peer to peer sharing of pornographic images of children, proving that abuse has continued to persist on the federal agency’s servers. These investigations led Congress to team up with prosecutors, advocates, and others in the law enforcement community to produce a legislative solution that provides resources and expertise to the DoD as it eliminates online child exploitation from its networks.

Provisions from the END Network Abuse Act are now incorporated into the annual defense authorization bill including key directives by Congress. Specifically, the National Defense Authorization Act directs the DoD to establish and carry out an initiative to enhance the ability of military criminal investigative organizations to prevent and combat child sexual exploitation. This can be accomplished by the Secretary of Defense through working with both internal and external experts to train personnel across the DoD. Further, the directive allows for the establishment of new task forces with other federal, state, and local prosecutors and other law enforcement agencies to produce a collaborative approach to ending the use of DoD networks for child pornography.

We are confident that this new mandate will lead to success in our continued fight to end online child exploitation and protect those most vulnerable in our society. Lawmakers and prosecutors have a long, fruitful history of partnering to tackle difficult challenges. This effort is no different, as these new directives will provide DoD leadership with the capability to prevent child pornography from plaguing their networks and ensure offenders are brought to justice.

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