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Web crawler takes aim at child porn

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | JAN 09 2012

It’s no secret that the Web has facilitated the distribution of and access to child pornography, with the United Nations estimating that more than four million websites worldwide contain pornographic material involving children. Researchers at Simon Fraser University’s International Cybercrime Research Centre have developed a special web crawler that they hope will help to track and disrupt these websites.

The web crawler, developed by criminology PhD student Richard Frank, allows users to collect massive samples  – more than 200,000 web pages at a time   – without having to actually view the content. In the latest study involving the tool, Dr. Frank and his colleagues analyzed how the networks that distribute child pornography are structured, and then applied various “attack” strategies to determine which of these would cause the most disruption.

“Eventually we hope to understand the life cycle of a website hosting this type of content: when it is created, what content is put on it, how content shifts from one website to another, and how it ‘dies’,” he says.

The researchers concluded that the project “has practical implications in terms of focusing the effective use of police resources and decreasing the accessibility of online child pornography.” Their paper, “Strategies to Disrupt Online Child Porn Networks,” (PDF) earned an honourable mention at a recent European informatics conference.

The next step for the SFU researchers is to track the way networks evolve and adapt to specific types of attacks. They are also looking to modify the web crawler for use with other networks, such as those related to terrorism, drug use or other illegal behaviours.

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