We previously discussed the increase nationwide and in Missouri of technology related offenses that involve children as victims. We also explained that one way that such offenses come to the attention of law enforcement is when a cyber tip is submitted through the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s CyberTipline (link to that blog post). Another way that such offenses come to the attention of law enforcement is when an officer downloads child pornography from a suspect using a peer-to-peer network like eMule or LimeWire. Basically, when using a peer-to-peer network, every user simultaneously receives information from and transfers information to one another.
When Southwest Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force officers go to these networks to investigate child pornography crimes, they will use keywords to search for child pornography in the “share” folder of other people using the network. Police can also find these images by using hash marks or hash values. Hash values are the unique digital fingerprints associated with a certain image. The Task Forces has special software that helps investigators search through thousands of images and flag the ones with hash values that have been previously identified as child pornography.
If the Task Force locates a child pornography image, they will download the image as evidence. One might think that these online searches violate the fourth amendment, as the police need to have a valid warrant to search private property. However, several federal courts, including the Eighth Circuit, have ruled that the police are not required to have a warrant to search publicly accessible files from a private computer on a peer-to-peer site. See United States v. Stults, 575 F.3d 834 (8th Cir.2009); U.S. v. Hill, 750 F.3d 982, 986 (8th Cir. 2014).
Once the Task Force officer finds and downloads an illegal image, the officer will then use software, like Maxmind or Fairplay, to find the Internet Protocol address (“IP address”) of the person who was sharing the file via the peer-to-peer network. Your IP address is what sites use to track information. Similar to sending mail from your home address, information can be sent to and from your IP address.
The Task Force then obtains a subpoena for the IP address’s internet provider to give the investigators the actual home address and name of the person to whom the IP address is registered. Once this is obtained and investigators believe they have enough evidence, they will obtain a warrant to search the house. During the search, officers will seize cell phones, laptops, and hard drives to be searched. During the execution of the search warrant, the Task Force will also try to interview the suspect. Unfortunately, few suspects invoke their right to remain silent, and incriminating statements from the suspect during the search are held against the suspect later.
The items seized will be searched by a detective trained in forensic examination, using tools such as Cellebrite. One item the detective will be looking for on the suspect’s devices is the image that the Task Force officer downloaded when connected to the peer-to-peer network.
Cantin Mynarich has years of experience representing people charged with cyber crimes. Give us a call if the Southwest Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force serves a search warrant at your home.