I picked up the phone and dialed the number for the local field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "I've found what I think is child porn," I told the operator, my voice shaking.
I was researching a popular "jailbait" message board this week when I discovered a thread filled with webcam screengrabs and videos of what looked to be pubescent girls in various states of undress and sexual activity. I've come across "barely legal" porn before, but this was different: These girls looked like they weren't a day over 13. The intimate webcam context lent an additional believability to it: It was easy to imagine someone convincing each of these seemingly underage girls via video chat to take off their clothes, all the while recording the action to later distribute far and wide or even to use as a bribe to get future "shows" out of them.
That is what so-called "cappers" do -- and they are what brought me to the jailbait message board in the first place, and ultimately to the FBI. They screen-capture live webcam chats -- which can involve anywhere from two to several hundred people -- while pressuring girls and young women to strip down. It starts with "show your stomach!" and quickly progresses from there like an online game of Truth or Dare. Sometimes all they get is a quick bra flash; other times they get a full-on "bate" (when a girl masturbates on camera). In the capper community, the latter would be called a "win."
To be sure, some of the stars of these "caps" are simply of-age exhibitionists, but the most in-demand videos are of unsuspecting minors -- those like Amanda Todd. The 15-year-old committed suicide last week after enduring years of bullying, online and off. In a YouTube video that has since gone viral, she shares the story of how years ago, while still in middle school, she went on webcam chats with her friends. She was met with flattery and attention and was asked to flash, and she did. A man screen-capped her big reveal and then used the image to bribe her to "put on a show." When she refused, he sent the photo to her family and friends. On note cards held up to the camera, she explained: "I then got really sick and got anxiety, major depression and panic disorder." The nine-minute clip goes on to explain how the bribery and harassment led to bullying at school, as well as multiple suicide attempts.
Last weekend, the hacktivist group Anonymous revealed the name of an alleged capper it claims is behind the harassment of Todd. Officials have denied the connection. However, the larger capping community's link to Todd is undeniable: She was mentioned in at least two episodes in 2010 of The Daily Capper, a video roundup of community news that includes announcements of new "cam whores" and celebrations of recent capper "wins." In one of the videos, a cartoon newscaster with a computerized voice says, "a mysterious BlogTV girl named Amanda is said to flash her tits randomly at low view counts," and the middle schooler's screen name is given out. In another, Todd's image is shown on screen as the newscaster reports that she's being banned from BlogTV.
The Daily Capper also "hands out awards -- visualized as a golden webcam -- to members of the community who cause the most harm to their victims, elicit the greatest amount of lulz, and are the most successful at blackmailing," reports VICE. One such video details how a capper -- the same one named by Anonymous -- alleged blackmailed a 14-year-old BlogTV user known as "Peyton." As she explains in a video:
A month ago ... he recorded me for the first time and then I was stupid enough to keep doing it because he said he was never gonna do it again and that he was stupid and that he didn't want to ruin our relationship. And he just used me and he stopped calling me ... he just wanted me out of his life because ... I gave him what he wanted.
She later adds, "I guess I was just, like, liking the attention he was giving me."
As for the motivation of the cappers, in his dissertation, "Little Brother Is Watching and Recording You," Joshua Wayne Roberts quotes one anonymous capper's explanation:
For the simple thrill of it. It's live, unprofessional and real. These are real girls broadcasting live from their bedrooms, and the fact is that if no one records it then it's almost as if it never happened because it will never be seen again. The obvious reason why people cap these shows is so that they can watch it again to "Fap" [masturbate] to later on or so that they can show their friends what they missed out [on]. It becomes an addiction for a lot of people to get as many caps as they can and create collections and grade others' and build reputations; in other words, the more they cap, the more it starts to become a game.
And there are message boards devoted to swapping tips on how to win the game. One trick is for the capper to present a video loop of a fit young guy typing away at the computer as himself, thereby piquing the girl's interest. As one capper writes on a message board, "I've been capping for a bit now, and I would say wins are a matter of three steps: 1. Practice 2. Patience and 3. Loops." He goes on to say, "Practice will also get you better at being able to not get busted so quickly because some girls are sluts and some girls are prudent sluts; it's all in the game." There are extensive archives of loops that cappers can use to convince girls that they are Prince Charming (or at least Prince Hottie).
On these same message boards, "wins" (i.e., photos and videos of girls disrobing) are shared, including sought-after ones of underage girls -- and that brings me back to my call to the FBI. There was no way for me to tell whether I was looking at photos of underage girls (not to mention whether the screen caps were taken with or without their knowledge). But Charles Gillingham, deputy district attorney with the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office, tells me, “Every image that's on the Internet has a letter and number value, and that’s a value that stays with that image regardless of where it goes [online]." With the digital fingerprint, law enforcement can check reported images against a vast catalog of verified child porn images, including cases where the victim's identity and age has been verified. But "that known-image database is signifcantly smaller than the world of images that are out there," he says. For those in which the "capped" person is unidentifiable, the issue of whether they are a minor is "ultimately a question for the jury to decide."
But even when a screen-capped minor has been positively identified, the image isn't necessarily child pornography, at least not in the law's eyes. It all depends on the state. "In some statutes, the chest does not count," Gillingham says. "In some jurisdictions it has to be the genitalia." In California, where Gillingham practices, an image of a 13-year-old flashing her breasts might not be considered child porn -- even if it is widely circulated and drooled over on capper message boards. "That being said, there are other statutes that we could use to address it, " he says, like the state law punishing "unnatural sexual interest in children." And, of course, extortion is illegal.
Brad Russ, director of the National Criminal Justice Training Center, says that in these cases "the language used becomes really important." He explains, "If they're saying, 'Do this for me for sexual gratification,' it's a lot different than 'You're a very beautiful girl, and I'd like to see what you look like,'" he says. "People will argue, 'Well, I was into photography, and I didn't know she was underage, and I didn't coerce her.' We would certainly try to prosecute those cases, but there are many shades of grey in that situation."
Indeed. The message board thread I reported is still live, days after reporting it -- and it very well may never be taken down.