The Spanish police force has arrested 39 people who were connected to a child pornography distribution network maintained on WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging app.
The network ran about 100 separate chat groups, with 135 users from 18 different countries around the world, in Europe, Central America, North America, and South America. In addition to 17 arrests in Spain, further arrests were made in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Germany, Italy, Paraguay, and Portugal.
That’s a total of ten countries involved in this disturbing WhatsApp child pornography ring, the first known of its kind. The international crackdown is the first example of an investigation at this scale of child pornography on a host platform like WhatsApp.
In this international operation, the Spanish police collaborated with the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) and the European Police Office (Europol).
The investigation began in mid-2016, when a high-tech unit in Spain pursued an encrypted network and discovered dark sites that directed users to certain alarming WhatsApp chat rooms.
In a statement, police in Spain cited a suspicious link uncovered in a computer network called The Onion Router, which is designed to hide its users’ identities.
The link invited users to participate in child pornography chat groups.
“These offenders are pushing the boundaries of modern technology to try to avoid being caught by law enforcement,” said Europol director Rob Wainwright.
The investigation led to a search of the homes of those arrested, which turned up “hundreds of devices containing several terabytes of child sexual exploitation materials,” said Europol.
It gets sicker
In Luga, Spain, a single home housed documents detailing encounters with children, including their names, ages, and locations. The encounters stretched back for multiple decades. The Spanish police report that the retrieved files contain images of children eight years old and younger being subjected to cruel abuse.
The head of the European Cybercrime Center at Europol, Steven Wilson, told the Associated Press that Spanish police discovered the group last year. He says the network of closed chat groups was not run for money, but for “self-gratification.”
What WhatsApp had to say
“Child exploitation has no place on WhatsApp,” said a WhatsApp spokesperson. “When we’re made aware of these accounts, we investigate, disable users that violate our terms, and assist with law enforcement as they track down and prosecute criminals.”