Mounties slow to spend anti-child porn cash

The RCMP’s vaunted project to nab more Internet child-porn offenders has been bogged down by technological setbacks and a chronic shortage of officers, says a report.

OTTAWA — The RCMP’s vaunted project to nab more Internet child-porn offenders has been bogged down by technological setbacks and a chronic shortage of officers, says a report.

The Mounties have also failed, for four years running, to spend about 40 per cent of the money budgeted for the project, an internal evaluation has found. The RCMP was given $34.4 million, spread over five years, but has not been using all the cash.

Repeated delays in creating a Canada-wide database of child-porn images accounts for about half of those unspent funds.

“There is currently no national standardized database,” says the document prepared for the Public Safety Department.

“This fact contributes to inconsistent categorization of images across different jurisdictions within Canada and overseas.”

The July 2008 evaluation was obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, after a nine-month delay.

The findings raise questions about proposed child-porn legislation, introduced Tuesday by Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, that would require Internet service providers, or ISPs, to report tips about suspect websites, notify police and safeguard evidence.

However “suppliers of Internet services would not be required to send personal subscriber information under this statute,” the department said in a release.

The decision to protect the personal information of suspects collides with the findings of the evaluation report, which says officers feel shackled by their inability to compel ISPs to release names and addresses of customers.

“At the moment, ISPs are often declining to provide a customer name and address to law enforcement due to fears of civil liability,” the report found, noting that some investigations become frozen as a result.

“The level of co-operation from ISPs has hindered investigations from becoming more comprehensive because investigations become ’un-actionable’ when ISPs do not provide information.”

A spokeswoman for the RCMP did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

The Winnipeg-based director of Cybertip.ca, Canada’s national tipline for reporting the online sexual exploitation of children, said federal officials are considering other legislation that could force ISPs to turn over personal information without a warrant.

“It’s still something that’s being explored further,” Signy Arnason said in an interview. “It may possibly be under a separate bill.”

Justice Department spokeswoman Carole Saindon said another piece of proposed legislation, Bill C-47 introduced in June, will give police new powers to demand that ISPs hand over the personal information of some subscribers, with certain privacy safeguards.

Arnason lauded Nicholson’s bill as a “good first step” because it will compel web-hosting businesses to alert police and safeguard evidence of Internet child porn.

Canada’s big ISPs, covering more than 90 per cent of Canadians, have long co-operated with police but commercial firms that host child-porn websites for a fee have not, Arnason said.

Last week, Cybertip.ca released a world survey of websites that sell child porn. The investigation found 65 per cent were located in the United States, followed by Canada at eight per cent.

The Public Safety evaluation highlighted delays in creating a national image database, intended to help identity child victims — and pornographers themselves — by cataloguing images and using software to electronically match pictures and videos.

In 2005, for example, Toronto police released pictures of a hotel room in which a girl had been abused — and soon received tips from people who recognized a Florida establishment. The girl was located. Her abuser was already serving 15 years.

The RCMP wants to make the database accessible to all law-enforcement agencies and to develop powerful software that can sift through images quickly, making matches.

The internal evaluation, which generally praises Ottawa’s porn-fighting measures, also found the Mounties suffer from a chronic shortage of staff willing to take on gut-wrenching investigations into the sexual abuse of children.

The authors cited “the challenge of recruitment and retention across the RCMP … in the child exploitation area, in particular, because it is a psychologically demanding field.”

The shortage of staff has likely prevented the RCMP from spending its full allotment of cash each year, says the report.

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