Internet, Usenet News, and the distribution of pictures of nude children

Mats Wiklund
Department of Computer and Systems Sciences
Stockholm University
Forum 100
SE-164 40 Kista Sweden
+46 8 161614

Version date 1996-feb-05

Abstract In order to establish if the internet service Usenet News is used to distribute child pornography or other types pictures of children in the nude, all postings in four news groups dealing with pornographic pictures were examined during a 7-day period. During this time 5651 postings were made in the four news groups, out of which 807 were pictures. Among them were eight pictures of 8-13 year old (estimates by the author) children in the nude. None of the pictures show intercourse or other explicit sexual activity. Five of the pictures had text on them offering more pictures of nude children through BBS:s and electronic mail.

Even though the found pictures of nude children may not be considered as child pornography under the legislation in many countries, the context makes it likely that they do indeed have that purpose. It can also be concluded from the text on some of the pictures that Usenet News and the internet can be used to establish contact with people interested in pictures of children in the nude.

Internet is a global network of computers, that at the time of writing is implemented by the interconnection of more than 50000 local networks with more than 2 miljon connected computers in 92 countries [1]. In addition, at the time of writing at least 45 other countries have a limited access to internet, so that at basic and much used internet services like electronic mail are in use in at least 137 countries [1]. Since many of the over 2 miljon connected computers are either multi-user mainframes or personal computers shared by several persons, the total number of persons that have access to internet is much larger. In early 1994 it was estimated that internet was growing at a rate of 12% each month [1].

After having had its core in the academic world, there has been a gradual shift of which groups in the community that are using internet. During earlier conditions only, universities, collages, and research departments at large corporations and governments had access to internet. Recently, many companies without any research activities have begun to use internet to communicate with their customers, which in turn has been made possible by a large number of telecommunication companys selling internet connections to private citizens, at prices acceptable to the ecenomic situation of people in general.

Through the internet, different services can be implemented, for instance electronic mail to send person-to-person messages, WWW (World Wide Web) to display information to many in a structured way with possibilities to mix various types of content like text an images, or FTP (File Transfer Protocol) to transfer whole files containing computer programs and other types of content.

The conference system Usenet News (News Groups)
An internet service that almost all internet connections gives access to is the conference system Usenet News, sometimes refered to as just "news groups". Through this service, any user can write his or her own postings, that can then be read by and commented on by any other user. The users of this type of service can be said to take part in computer mediated discussions without the need to be present together, neither geografically or in time.

The Usenet News service is subdivided into several thousand news groups, corresponding to the different subjects discussed. Some news groups are more scientific in nature, while others more deal with subjets more related to hobbies and recreation. A very large number of news groups deal with subjects related to computers on computer programs of various kinds. Also, some news groups are dedicated to the subject sex and erotica, including pornographic pictures. Even though Usenet News was not originally designed to transfer images (but just textual information), images can still be transfered by encoding them in a form that is percieved by Usenet news as text, and the decoded after the transfer to reproduce the image again.

Some computers, running appropriate programs, works as news servers, storing the postings that the individual users make. Every user connects to one of these news servers to get and/or post information through the Usenet News, often a geographically close server is used. The posted information is then automatically passed on to other news servers in a cascading way, so that after a while the posted information is available on all news servers that carry the news group in question.

There is no guarantee though, that all news servers carry every existing news group. It is up to the organization (or in rare cases the private person) that runs the news server to decide which news groups to carry on that news server. Therefore the number of news groups available may vary between different news servers. At the time of writing, the news server used in this survey ( carries approximately 3000 news groups, including 8 dedicated to pornographic pictures.

Normally, the identity of the author of a posting in Usenet News is shown in the header of the posting. The authors user name is normally shown, as well as the computer system used to post. There are, however, several ways to become anonymous, one by letting the posting pass through an anonymity server (sometimes refered to as an "anonymous remailer"). The anonymity srver strips the senders identity from the posting, and replaces it with a code or a nic-name. The sender becomes anonymous, but can still be reached through his/her code or nic-name. The anonymity server takes care of email messages adressed to the code/nic-name in question and translates the code/nic-name back to the real identity and then resends the email. Using an anonymity server two persons can communicating with each other (including sending pictures) each without knowing the others true identity.

It should be noted that the anonymity server contains a data base that is used to translate back and forth between real identities and codes/nic-names. The level of anonymity achieved in this way is totally dependent on the person or organization running the anonymity server and the legislation in the country where the anonymity server resides.

It is also possible to become anonymous by simple manipulation of the client software used to post information to Usenet News. If this method is used, the sender is not reachable through email, but posts under a completely fake identity.

Since internet is not limited by geographical or political boundaries and is used to implement services for person-to-person as well as many-to-many communication like electronic mail and Usenet News, it can be used to transfer information that is illegal to distribute and/or to bring into a country. Under Swedish legislation, the distribution of child pornography is criminalized [2]. The potentially large possibilities of distribution that the global internet posess makes it interesting to investigate if it is in fact used to transfer child pornography, directly or indirectly by giving instructions how to obtain it, or by serving as a contact place for those interested in the subject. This is especially interesting in the light of the previously discussed possibilities to become anonymous. Research in this area is lacking.

The purpose of ths survey is to establish if the internet service Usenet News (news groups) is used to transfer child pornographic pictures, or pictures that are not child pornography in the legal sense but depicts nude children in general and are used either as a substitute for hard core child pornography or for contact purposes.

All postings in four news groups that have topics relating to pornographical images were investigated during the time period of 1994-dec-28 to 1995-jan-03. To access the postings the program Gnu-Emacs version 19.19.17 was used in its "gnus"-mode (the mode to read Usenet News) on a DecStation 5000/20 computer running Unix. To decode the encoded pictures the program UUdecode was used.

Pictures where it is not absolutely clear that the persons shown are in fact children, are not concidered to show children. Only pictures where it is absolutely clear that the persons shown are children are concidered to show children. In practice, this means children with yet undeveloped sexual organs and other sexual caracteristica, such as absence of pubic hair, undeveloped breasts for girls etc, in combination with an ovarall posture concistent with that of a child. The following news groups were investigated:
During the period of 1994-dec-28 to 1995-jan-03 a total of 5651 postings were made in the four news groups in the study. Of these, 4844 postings consisted of textual messages, mainly discussing picture quality and requesting various types of pictures (several requesting "nude kids" or other frases to that effect). The remaining 807 postings consisted of pictures. Of these, 8 show nude children as listed below:

News group:                                 a.b.p.e   a.b.p.e.f   a.s.p    a.s.p.f
Number of postings:                         2543      1581        820      707
Number of pictures:                          499       183         73       52
Number of pictures with nude children:         3         2          1        2
Percentage of pictures with nude children:     0,60%     1,09%      1,37%    3,85%
(out of the number of pictures)
None of the pictures nude children show sexual activities, but simply nude children in different positions and poses. Five of the pictures with nude children have texts on them stating where to obtain more pictures of nude children. The file names of the pictures were as follows:

slygs105.jpg, slygs99.jpg, slygs160.jpg, aa-12199.gif, aa-12542.gif, slygs143.jpg, aa-10001.gif, and KDSBOY4.jpg.

As discussed earlier there are several ways to be anonymous when posting to Usenet News, either by sending throug anonymity servers or by faking the senders identity completely. The senders names, as they appear in the postings, of four of the pictures suggest that the anonymity server located in Finland has been used. Please note though, that as the senders identities can be faked altogether, it can not be concluded that has been used, it is merely possible. The sender may just have chosen a faked identity that looks like one from, to make it look plausible. Of the remaining four pictures, three has a completely blank field instead of a senders identity, and the last one has a username and domainname that has a high likelyhood of being fake ( A fake senders identity or a blank senders identity can be achieved throug relatively simple manipulation of the real senders client program. The senders identities, as they appeared in the postings, were as follows:

Picture                 Senders ID as shown in the posting
aa-12199                blank from-field
aa-12542                blank from-field
aa-10001                blank from-field
Please note that the senders identities may be faked by the senders.

The pictures of nude children found in this survey is most likely not child pornography under the legislation in many countries, including Sweden. None of them show any sexual activities or any posing in sexual ways. Several of them seem to have been taken at nudist camps and similar places, where nudity is the norm. Such pictures are clearly not child pornography.

On the other hand, several pictures with no apparent connection between them other than that they show nude children, have been posted in an internet news groups that are explicitely dedicated to pornographic pictures and sex. This context suggests that these pictures do have a child pornographic purpose, regardless of their legal status. Also, the fact that these pictures are distributed globally through the internet together with hard core pornography may be a violation of the privacy of the children in question.

The texts on some of the pictures stating where more pictures of nude children can be obtained, indicate that Usenet News may be used for pedophilic contact seeking purposes. The possibilities to become anonymous (with or without anonymity servers) in turn makes it possible for pedophiles to establish communication through Usenet News without revealing their true identities.

Anonymity as such undubtedly serves many good causes, and permits for instance people in countries without freedom of speech to express their thoughts and communicate both within their country and with the rest of the world. By being anonymous they can speek freely without the risk of being imprisoned by a dictatorship regime. The same anonymity though, can also be used for instance to transfer pictures of children in the nude between pedofiles.

Through the internet service Usenet News is being transferred, to a very small degree but still, pictures of children in the nude. Each picture is not child pornography from a legal point of view, however the context makes it likely that they do indeed have that purpose. The senders of the pictures become anonymous by hiding their identity.

Several of the pictures have texts on them, stating where more pictures of children in the nude can be obtained. Usenet News is in this case being used as a display window to get in touch with people interested in such pictures.

[1] Palme, Jacob: Course material used in a doctoral students course on internet issues, dept. of Computer- and Systems Sciences, Stockholm University, 1994

[2] Swedish Criminal law, chapter 16, paragraph 10a.

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