It’s the dark underbelly of the internet, a place where criminals can find drugs, weapons and even new identities. But over the last decade, the dark web has also become a haven for some of the world’s most violent offenders — child predators.
“It’s, by far, the most unthinkable abuse anybody can imagine. Bondage, rape,” explained Michael Krol, special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in Boston.
The office’s cybercrimes unit spends days and nights working to shut down child trafficking operations, which, in recent years, have successfully operated through the anonymity of the internet.
“It’s no secret that these child predators are early adopters of cutting-edge technology,” explained Krol. “Those that are running these services on the dark web are technically savvy. They’re very young.”
Agents estimate many of the abusers, mostly men, are 30 or younger. The sites they use offer categories of abuse, advertising images and videos of children being subjected to specific types of sexual acts or torture. In one case, the victim was an 8-day-old baby.
“It’s disturbing. And it is very, very personal for me,” said Audrey Morrissey.
At age 17, Morrissey was trafficked by her boyfriend. Because of their relationship, she withstood the abuse for more than a decade, finally leaving at age 30.
“That’s a cycle that’s hard to break,” Morrisey explained.
The mother of three now works with My Life My Choice, an organization that supports youth victims of trafficking.
“This is happening in communities across Massachusetts. Exploiters have an opportunity to reach that many more young people than they ever did before,” said Lisa Goldblatt Grace, the organization’s executive director.
There are currently tens of thousands of users operating on trafficking sites. But agents tasked with finding them remain undeterred.
“Their anonymity is key for them,” said Krol. “Our special agents are passionate about rescuing these victims at every opportunity we can get.”