These images were artificially generated. But on the largest abuse site currently on the darknet, real pictures of children have been uploaded and are viewed by millions of users.
Marcel Jeninga’s life changed forever on that warm summer’s day 12 years ago. The young father was coming home from his shift as a supermarket cashier. He had bought a rowhouse in a quiet area of the Netherlands, perfect, he thought, for raising his children in a sheltered environment. A swing hung from a tree in the backyard.
After Jeninga locked up his bike, and entered the house, he heard his three-year-old daughter screaming in pain. He rushed to her side in the bathroom and saw that her underwear was red with blood. "Geert did it," she told him.
Geert de B., a man in his late 40s, was one of the family’s neighbors. He would come over for coffee on occasion, and seemed a friendly sort. He often brought along a stuffed animal or sweets for Jeninga’s daughter. But when Jeninga wasn’t there, Geert de B. would rape the girl, taking photos and making videos of the unfathomable things he did to her. He was ultimately sentenced to 15 years behind bars for his crimes, including the murder of another girl, and is currently in a correctional psychiatry facility.
But the photos and videos he made are likely still in circulation.
The father: On his right forearm, Marcel Jeninga has a tattoo of a child's hand along with the date June 17, 2009. It's the day his three-year-old daughter called to him from the bathroom.Foto: Ricardo Wiesinger / DER SPIEGEL
"It’s almost unbearable for all of us to know that people can still look at them," says Jeninga, who now lives near the town of Goslar in central Germany. The images "should disappear. Someone should finally take care of it." His daughter, who is now 15 years old, still suffers from the trauma of the abuse. Jeninga’s marriage also failed, likely in part because of the strain of living with such a horrific crime.
The case shines a spotlight on an aspect of the fight against online sexual predators that has thus far received far too little attention. German investigators, to be sure, have significantly ramped up their efforts in recent years to track down perpetrators and protect victims. They have broken up chat groups and have taken down darknet platforms like "Elysium" and "Boystown," some of which served thousands of consumers. But the number of images of children being sexually abused on the internet continues to rise. In just the first half of 2021, Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) documented as many cases involving the dissemination of abusive images as in all of 2020. The U.S.-based nonprofit National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) registered 65 million such photos or videos worldwide last year.
Police and politicians have committed themselves to tracking down and punishing the perpetrators, but they spend less time considering how the images of sexual abuse can be removed from the internet. When asked about the issue, officials tend to react with a shrug of their shoulders. The internet just doesn’t forget anything, says one political representative. "There isn’t much you can do." Germany, for its part, has operated a program for the last 10 years called "Delete instead of Block," which aims to report abusive images to internet service providers so they can remove the photos and videos from their servers. But the program only encompasses a small fraction of the images in circulation.
Reporters from DER SPIEGEL and the German public broadcaster Norddeutschen Rundfunk (NDR) have undertaken a comprehensive investigation to determine why the state has been unable to remove the images from the internet. The reporting led to a vast platform that is still online. We have decided not to use the platform’s real name to both protect victims and avoid guiding sexual predators to the collection of images. We will simply call it "Base."
Around 3.7 million user accounts are registered with "Base," making it likely the largest abuse site that has ever existed in the darknet. Under the cynical slogan "for child lovers," the platform is a kind of network of the like-minded, a place where users can chat almost in passing about the worst imaginable violations of children. The platform lays bare the staggering number of people who find pleasure in images of sexual abuse. And it makes it clear that no agency in Germany is making an effort to systematically delete the content disseminated over the darknet – despite the fact that it would be rather simple to do from a legal point of view.
"Base" users trivialize some of the most abominable crimes on the platform. Just a few days ago, a user with the screen name "Proud Grandfather" published photos of his granddaughter and described how she allegedly masturbates. Another user told of a four-year-old he babysits and claimed that she is attracted to him. In response, other users gave him tips for manipulating the girl. One pointed him to the "Pedo Handbook," an instruction manual designed to help sexual predators make children compliant. Those who post to the forum have no reason to fear contradiction, since the platform is an echo chamber for criminals seeking to legitimize their violations. Many of them try to maintain the fiction that the children participate of their own free will. "These people almost always only share images showing the children laughing," says an experienced investigator. The perpetrators, they say, seek to block out the fact that "in the same photo series, the children are crying in the 10 images before and after."
"Base" members also discuss aspects of day-to-day life. They ask where they can get falsified vaccination certificates, or they demonize the unvaccinated for potentially driving Germany into yet another lockdown. But by far the most visited parts of "Base" are those areas where links to videos and photos are shared. Platform operators have named one of them "Playground." This part of the platform has been clicked on 1.1 billion times, with 299 million of those visits going to the subforum "Hardcore," where abuse images with penetration are shown. As is standard in the darknet, new images receive the most likes, and additional pictures are constantly being uploaded.
One woman who hopes to stop such darknet users works on the top floor of a parking garage in the center of Frankfurt. Instead of parked cars, it is home to the offices of Julia Bussweiler, a prosecutor for the state of Hesse’s Central Office for the Fight against Cybercrime. On a Monday in May, she publicized a triumph for her office: Investigators from the Central Office in cooperation with the BKA had managed to shut down the platform "Boystown," which had around 400,000 registered users. Speaking to television cameras, Bussweiler said the investigation had lasted for several months and had been "extremely intense and comprehensive."
The public prosecutor: "As prosecutors, our task is to concentrate on the perpetrators," says Julia Bussweiler.Foto: Felix Schmitt / DER SPIEGEL
Prosecutors had four suspected operators of "Boystown" arrested, including a German national named Christian K., who lives in Paraguay. What the public didn’t realize at the time was that just five days after the spectacular police operation, the images could again be accessed via the darknet: An anonymous user had re-uploaded a partial copy of "Boystown" to "Base."
There are also technical reasons for the ease with which photos and videos can continue to exist on the web. Usually, darknet users don’t upload large volumes of data directly to the darknet, instead using file hosting services available through the freely accessible internet. These companies offer their customers storage space where they can keep their vacation photos or documents. Dropbox, WeTransfer and GoogleDrive are some of the better-known file hosting services. But there are also numerous smaller companies that offer their users complete anonymity.
Because sexual predators also encrypt their data, the companies have no idea what they are storing. On darknet platforms, the perpetrators share links and passwords, allowing others to download and decrypt the content from the file hosting service. It is a simple principle, but thus far, it has frequently been enough to prevent officials from taking the videos and images offline.
In the case of "Boystown," the BKA apparently didn’t report any of the content to the file hosting services, so it remained online. The same holds true of "Base," even though German and international investigators have the platform in their sights. Germany’s acting justice minister, Christine Lambrecht, said a week ago that it was extremely difficult to remove the images "because much of this data is not in the freely accessible internet, but in the darknet."
The reporting by DER SPIEGEL and NDR shows that this assessment is false. An analysis of the data accessible via "Base" has shown that the vast majority of the videos and images are not, in fact, in the darknet, but on the normal internet. And they tend to be stored with file hosting services – regular companies that have telephone numbers and addresses and are grateful when they are informed of illegal content so they can delete it.
Often, a simple email is enough to get the companies to take action. In the middle of August, reporters wrote a short message to six file hosting services: "We have discovered links to so-called child pornography that is available through your platform." A list with several hundred pages of links – the product of a comprehensive analysis of the data – was attached to each of the mails. Behind the links were tens of thousands of videos and photos depicting the sexual abuse of underage girls and boys.
Arrest in Paraguay: Police were apparently able to arrest Christian K. as he was sitting at his computer and logged in to a darknet forum.Foto: @nanduti / Twitter
Contrary to the statements from outgoing Justice Minister Lambrecht and other officials, it doesn’t take long for companies to remove illegal data from their networks. One file hosting service removed all the links from its servers within just 42 minutes. In the end, the team of reporters managed to get 13 terabytes of abuse images removed from the internet within a relatively short amount of time – a vast amount of data equivalent to an HD video running around the clock for an entire year. With the help of a bit of software, it was possible to register the amount of data involved and confirm that it had actually been deleted. The analysis, though, also showed that in the three months after the data was deleted, another 20 terabytes were online again via the same file hosting services.
An email from DER SPIEGEL and NDR was also sent to the French file-hosting service Mon Partage, based near Bordeaux, in August, notifying them of 9,347 links to rape images on their server. "That was quite a slap in the face for us," says the programmer and owner of the service. He says he wants to emphasize that his small company always reacted promptly to complaints, such as reports of copyright violations. He says, though, that he was never notified by government agencies of images of abuse and never received any email from the German Federal Criminal Police.
His company began operations in 2013, but only this summer did he realize, thanks to reporting by DER SPIEGEL and NDR, how frequently and for how long his service had been used for the dissemination of abusive images. After two days, he had deleted all the reported material. A short time later, he announced that he was closing down his hosting service. A German man, whose file hosting service has also been used to share huge quantities of abusive images, says he has almost never been contacted by the authorities. Over the course of several years, he says, the BKA has only sent him a handful of links.
Public Prosecutor Julia Bussweiler
Ingo Fock can say a thing or two about what it means for people when images of them can still be found on the internet even decades later. Now 58 years old, Fock searched through the internet several years ago looking for pictures of himself being abused as a child. And he ultimately found what he was looking for in a collection with a name like "blond eight-year-old from Berlin."
"As a victim, I have to constantly assume that someone is currently watching me get raped and jerking themselves off," says Fock, who runs a victim-support organization in the city of Göttingen. "I am furious with how slowly and indifferently politicians and agencies take action," he says. Photos and videos, he says, change the situation significantly for victims. "If it was analog abuse, there is an opportunity to alleviate the trauma with good therapy," Fock says. "But if images are being passed around on the internet, it is extremely difficult."
The widespread distribution of abusive images on the internet isn’t just an enormous problem for the victims. Those looking at the pictures apparently find them so stimulating that they often aren’t content with just watching videos. In an anonymous survey conducted in the darknet, more than a third of users said that they had sought to establish contact with children themselves after having consumed such content.
"These forums can contribute to the lowering of inhibitions," says Klaus Beier, head of a network that seeks to help those who feel sexually attracted to children to prevent them from acting on their urges. Beier is also director of the Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine at Berlin's Charité University Hospital. "When these people interact in a community of others like them, a distortion of perceptions may result." He says that users can convince themselves that children actually want to have sex with adults.
Sexual medicine expert: "When these people interact in a community of others like them, a distortion of perceptions may result," says Klaus Beier, director of the Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine at Berlin's Charité University Hospital.Foto: Falk Heller / IMAGO / argum
In addition to "Base," there are currently more than 96 million images and videos exchanged through darknet sites for child abuse. That is according to an analysis performed by Erin Burke, who is the head of a specialized, child exploitation investigative unit at the U.S. agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). "More child sexual abuse images lead directly to more abuse," says Burke. Her analysis counts 130 chat groups and forums on the darknet in addition to "Base." "It surprises me that German law enforcement is not reporting these images," Burke said when presented with the findings of the DER SPIEGEL/NDR investigation. When her unit took down the large darknet platform "Welcome to Video," they reported the cases to NCMEC to prevent the videos and images of abuse being uploaded again.
Hans-Joachim Leon is a group leader in the BKA division for serious and organized crime. When approached with the results of the reporting by DER SPIEGEL and NDR, he said he wanted to consider how the BKA can contribute to removing abusive images from the internet. "It’s actually too bad that you as journalists performed this work," Leon says. When conducting investigations in the darknet, he says, the BKA’s priority is on identifying perpetrators and shutting down forums. Deleting material, he continues, requires an intensive examination of the content in accordance with the law. "If, perhaps, a reporting center could be established at the European level, that could be a promising strategy," Leon says, adding that such a thing is already under consideration.
European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson confirmed that she is working on new legislation to establish such a reporting center: "We would have an EU version of NCMEC," Johansson told DER SPIEGEL. It would allow European law enforcement agencies to add images and videos they find in investigations of darknet platforms to a central European database. Companies would then be able to use this database to delete such images or to prevent them from being reuploaded to their servers. Bussweiler, the public prosecutor, also says: "Every investigator working in this area would like to see these images be removed from the internet."
An endless fight: With his foundation, Marcel Jeninga is trying to push public officials to do more.Foto: Ricardo Wiesinger / DER SPIEGEL
Herbert Reul, interior minister for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, has also promised to think about how officials might be able to contribute to the removal of such content. "The path you have shown me," he told the reporters, "is attractive and seems prudent." Crimes cannot always be prevented, he says, but sometimes it is important to keep at it and spread unease, making things uncomfortable for the perpetrators. "Deletion of content could be a significant contribution."
Such considerations are too late for Marcel Jeninga. After the abuse was discovered, Jeninga’s father took his own life after seeing photos in the investigation file that the neighbor had taken while abusing his granddaughter, Jeninga relates. "He couldn’t cope with it."
Jeninga has launched a foundation to fight abuse, for which he is largely responsible in a volunteer capacity. It has essentially become his life’s mission. As part of that work, he has been able to get a group banned through which sexual predators maintained contact with each other. Thanks to his efforts, the distribution of the 1,000-page-long darknet manual "Pedo Handbook" is now a crime.
Yet it is a fight that never stops. "It’s a lot of work, also for the police. I understand that," says Jeninga. "But more must be done. It’s about our children."