Fantinos flawed kiddie porn crusade

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ANALYSIS / Accused are convicted in fickle court of public opinion James Dubro / Xtra Toronto / Friday, February 27, 2009

Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) commissioner Julian Fantino has frequently paraded his law-and-order issues before media, especially when talking about so-called sex crimes.

Gay men will remember Fantino from a press conference in 1994, while he was chief in London, at which he posed with some 800 videotapes seized from the apartment of a local teacher. The tapes were presented as a huge cache of child porn, evidentiary of a vast organized network of kiddie-diddling enthusiasts.

"This seizure and the resulting investigation will no doubt lead to many cities and towns throughout the province," read a London police press release then. "Experience has shown us that this serious problem goes well beyond London. It is a widespread, underground connection of individuals who indiscriminately victimize children for their own pleasure."

Of course in the end that seizure led nowhere. The tapes were not kiddie porn at all. The man was charged with possession of child porn for other materials found in his apartment but prosecutors later withdrew the charges.

Now on Feb 6, surrounded by police brass from 18 Ontario police forces, Fantino announced to the media that 31 men and boys had been arrested in what he called the "largest bust for child porn in Ontario history."

This is almost word for word what he said a year ago, almost to the day, when he announced in a similar media extravaganza the arrests of 22 men and one woman in what he called "the largest bust for porn in Ontario history." At that press conference he also gave "fair warning to paedophiles."

"You can run but you cannot hide," he thundered. "We will stop at nothing to hunt down child predators and eliminate the threat they pose to our children and our community."

Among the names of alleged paedophiles released by Fantino in 2008 was that of a Toronto man who police later said was not charged or suspected at all. They included his name on the list in error. By the time the OPP issued a correction several media outlets had published the man's name. Naturally the subsequent corrections and apologies did not earn the same media coverage as the original story.

Many of those arrested, both in 2008 and 2009, were children or juveniles themselves. In fact in the most-recent bust at least four of those charged are between the ages of 14 and 18 and three are young men between 20 and 24. The mainstream press reports that one of those men is a 20-year-old Olympic archer, his career and future now forever blemished regardless of the outcome of his trial. A whopping 25 percent of those caught up in this dragnet of alleged child pornographers are young men in their teens and early 20s.

It is almost impossible for journalists to evaluate the validity and strength of the recent spate of child porn arrests because few details have been made public, except for sensational tidbits leaked by police about the alleged abuse of a four-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl who police say they rescued from their father.

None of the people arrested in 2008 and 2009 have faced trial yet let alone been found guilty but police and the media often throw the presumption of innocence out the window.

"As a researcher on sex panics one of my fundamental concerns is the ability for researchers to independently scrutinize the evidence brought before the accused," says York PhD socio-logy student Robert Teixeira. "Media reports of child pornography investigations often employ vague and problematic language to describe the evidence, secure in the fact that the ability for an assessment of their claims by independent researchers will be blocked. The evidence of child porn investigations are black-boxed in this way and this is, to my knowledge, unique in the procedures of criminal investigations."

At the 2008 press conference Fantino touted software that supposedly allows investigators to indentify the IP addresses of personal computers sharing kiddie porn over the internet. The software was developed by Wyoming policeman Flint Waters.

In 2008 the OPP said Waters had identified 205,000 unique IP addresses across Canada — including 63,000 across Ontario with 4,000 in Toronto — that were used to trade kiddie porn. Police said they turned up 98 suspects across Canada, including thousands of suspects under surveillance from 30 countries.

Xtra has attempted to contact Waters to ask how the software works and how it recognizes bits of child porn in the teeming digital static of the internet. Waters has never responded to our inquiries.

"They use software to build a database of activity and relationships," says CBC technology analyst Jesse Hirsh. "I would bet that this past bust resulted from a network that all arrested were on. However that's speculation."

Hirsh believes that police investigations on child porn could be a slippery slope.

"Law enforcement is using child porn investigations as a template and it is a turning point for law enforcement and the internet," says Hirsh. "Child porn investigations make it politically possible for the cops to do surveillance on the internet. It is culturally acceptable to do it for child porn in investigations. It is a test case for policing online."

There is little doubt that Fantino would like to hunt down and prosecute every one of these possible child pornographers, but even a moral crusader of Fantino's mettle needs real evidence not just hypotheses and computer tracking reports to proceed with charges and get convictions in the real world of the Ontario criminal justice system.

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