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'Sweetie' sting nabs 1,000 alleged online child abusers - but is its approach legal?

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(Read caption) Terre des Hommes created this computer-generated image of a fake 10-year-old Filipino girl called Sweetie. The Dutch children’s rights organization is warning of an epidemic of children being paid to perform sexual acts via webcams and urging police around the world to crack down on the sinister practice.

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- A roundup of global reports

A Netherlands-based children’s rights group snagged 1,000 online sexual predators using a digital decoy, a computer-generated and eerily realistic-looking 10-year-old Filipino girl named Sweetie. The group is now calling on world governments to adopt its digital approach to combat the new phenomenon of online sex tourism, which is spreading quickly because it is difficult to police.

But the approach has raised some concerns over intrusive surveillance methods as well as questions over its ultimate legal bite. 

Terre Des Hommes, the group that developed the computer-generated Sweetie, ran the undercover operation from a secret back room of a warehouse on the outskirts of Amsterdam. The group described its 10-week effort in a video, which documents the instant cascade of messages that flood the computer screen as soon as Sweetie enters the chat room.

Many users offer to pay Sweetie for posing naked for the camera. And quite a few are willing to share bits of personal information that Terre Des Hommes researchers later used to track them down on Google and Facebook. 

“In 10 weeks, we traced 1,000 men from all over the world who were willing to pay Sweetie to perform sexual acts in front of the webcam,” said Albert Jaap van Santbrink, director of Terre des Hommes Netherlands at a press conference on Monday, according to Reuters. That is just a fraction of the 20,000 people who approached her over the internet, most of them from wealthier countries. Terre des Hommes has handed over their profiles to Interpol. 

These 1,000 adults come from 71 countries, according to the group's statement, and the United States is leading the pack with 254 people. Other top-ranking countries are Britain, with 110 individuals, and India, with 103.

The scope of this discovery was “terrifying,” one Terre des Hommes investigator, his face shielded for his protection, told the BBC. “What’s new is girls from developing nations connecting to the Internet and seeing that they can get paid for it. Parents, criminals [could] see that there’s good money to be made if you put kids behind webcams and let them chat here in these public chat rooms.”

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Terre des Hommes insists that around 750,000 pedophiles lurk online at any given second and that their number is on the rise, but only six men have ever been charged. It estimates that tens of thousands of children have already been abused online.

The group has launched an online petition to campaign for proactive policing of international online sex tourists by governments and international organizations using the approach the group developed.   

But online sex tourism is difficult to prove, and the challenge of stopping it is complicated by the dramatic differences in country's laws when it comes to the abuse of minors, online conduct, and personal privacy. The question of enforcement will fall to individual governments, which could make international coordination painfully cumbersome if not impossible. For now, it appears that the 1,000 adults identified by Terre des Hommes to date – 999 men and one woman – run no immediate risk of being publicly named or prosecuted. 

On top of that, the group’s approach has already raised the ire of some would-be partners, including the European Union policing agency Europol, for its intrusive methods and meddling in the private activities of Internet users.

“We believe that criminal investigations using intrusive surveillance measures should be the exclusive responsibility of law enforcement agencies,” Europol spokesman Soren Pedersen told Reuters. 

And although Terre des Homes insists that its methods fell far short of privacy violations, it remains to be seen if its investigation will yield more than a moral outcry.

“Our worst-case scenario is that the same will happen with this phenomenon as with child pornography, which is now a multi-billion industry in the hands of criminal gangs,” said Albert Jaap van Santbrink, according to Reuters.

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