Seventeen years ago, when Bill Baker worked his first child pornography case, the electronic images he saw had been scanned into the computer from hard copies of magazines produced overseas.
"The Internet wasn't as robust as it is now," said Baker, investigations branch manager for the state attorney general's cyber crimes branch.
As the technology has grown, so have the opportunities for child pornographers to exploit it.
"In general, any platform currently being used daily on the Internet has the potential to be abused by someone who has a desire to use that technology for illicit purposes," said Lt. Shane Bates of the Kentucky State Police Electronic Crime Branch.
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Social networks, chat rooms, file-sharing programs, online bulletin boards, forums and paid Web sites all now make it much easier for people to trade child pornography. Baker said cell phones are increasingly being used to trade images.
Social networks provide a means for child pornographers who might once have operated alone to meet others.
They might use Web sites to create groups where they can trade photographs, said Detective David Flannery of the Lexington police.
"It's made it easier for people to validate their interest for kids," said Erin May Roth, an assistant U.S. Attorney and Project Safe Childhood coordinator for the Eastern District of Kentucky. "There's whole communities to support this. ... They start to feel like they're more normal in their thoughts."
Peer-to-peer networks allow people to download file-sharing programs so they can connect computers to trade the illicit photos and videos. And there are paid Web sites, sometimes operated from overseas. Once people subscribe, they get links to the Web site, which might change daily to avoid detection, Roth said.
"The tragedy of child pornography is a huge enterprise, and there's money to be made," said Fayette County Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn.
A growing problem
Just how big is the problem?
In 2008, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children's CyberTipline received 85,301 reports about possession, manufacture and distribution of child pornography.
Baker and two other investigators are focused almost exclusively on child porn cases. State and local police statewide also investigate such crimes.
Baker said his office specifically investigates peer-to-peer networking, which allows users to link their computers directly to share files. He said 80 percent to 85 percent of the child pornography trading worldwide is done via those networks.
The work keeps the investigators busy.
"I could keep another 10 investigators busy," Baker said.
When the Cyber Crimes unit formed in 2008, Baker said, no one else in the state was investigating those platforms. The unit has seized about 300,000 images and videos of child pornography. It has conducted investigations that resulted in the prosecution of 70 people, he said.
Baker said police are sometimes stymied in their efforts to break into the world of child porn because the sites are heavily secured with passwords, and people might "have to know somebody to get on."
There is an expectation that new members do not just look at the child porn; they must contribute.
"It's all a one-upmanship kind of thing," he said. "Big traders won't trade with you unless you have something to trade."
Investigators are prohibited from sending illegal images. But Baker said investigators break into the illicit circles by using the accounts of someone who has been prosecuted.
"It's very similar to a narcotics transaction," Baker said. "There's an awful lot of it out there."
Once computers have been seized in an investigation, he said sorting the contents can be a lengthy process, because computer hard drives can store so much more information now.
"We're seeing much bigger collections," he said: One computer examined by the unit had 91,000 images on it.
Looking at those images takes its toll on the people who investigate, prosecute and otherwise handle such cases. Even the file names can be disturbing, Red Corn said.
Flannery said it helps to talk with other officers.
And Baker said there's a level of commitment to the job that makes the work easier, because they know how important it is.
"Everybody in this unit really believes in what they're doing," Baker said. But, he added, "It's tough. It's very tough to look at. We've had more than one attorney kind of get sick to his stomach."
In August, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano revealed the results of a 20-month investigation into a huge international child-porn network that was on an online bulletin board called Dreamboard.
Two Kentucky men were among 72 people accused of participating in the online club, where participants traded the equivalent of 16,000 DVDs of images and videos of sexually abused children.
One of the Kentuckians, Anthony Paul Sowders, 28, of Middlesboro, pleaded guilty in July, admitting that he used a webcam to produce images of underage girls involved in sex and posted them to the bulletin board. He posted 70 times, according to a court record.
Another Kentuckian, Timothy Lee Gentry, 33, of Burlington, pleaded guilty and was sentenced in May to 25 years in prison.
Some of the children featured being abused in the images and videos on Dreamboard were infants. One area of the bulletin board required that the photos involve children being subjected to pain, according to court documents.
Roth said it's not uncommon for these sites to have images of very young children being raped and tortured.
"The images that we're seeing are more violent. The children that we're seeing are younger," she said. "Almost all the cases we prosecute involve pre-pubescence. Several of them involve infants and children under the age of 5 or 6."
She said perpetrators often trade a "series" of photographs, "like baseball cards."
When they "want new, exciting things" they sometimes satisfy that by creating them themselves. And anyone with a digital camera can do it, Roth said.
"There are children whose entire childhoods have been documented being raped ... on the Internet," Roth said.
For victims, the trading of the pictures can be harder to recover from than the physical violation, she said.
Most cases do not make it to trial — because of the evidence against them, many defendants plead guilty, Roth said.
Red Corn said it has been years since her office handled a jury trial for someone on a charge of distribution or possession of child pornography. She said that's good for victims, because they're not subjected to having to testify in court.
People convicted under state law of distribution or possession of matter portraying a sexual performance of a minor can receive one to five years in prison. Second offenses of distribution could garner five to 10 years in prison.
Using a minor in a sexual performance is punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison under state law if the child is younger than 16.
But even after one trial is over, there might be many more reminders to come.
Once an image is on the Internet, it is never really gone, Baker said.
Roth said the victims or their parents or guardians must choose whether to be notified each time the child's photograph turns up in a case, and some victims get multiple notifications a day.
"It's such a burden for them," she said. "This is a documentation of the worst time of their life that's being passed around ... enjoyed. It's really one of the offenses that doesn't end for the victim."