News & Current Affairs
24 October 2014
Civil liberties advocate opposes use of online avatars to catch sex offenders
Sweetie, the image generated by Terre Des Hommes to catch would-be sex offenders.
Terry O’Gorman speaks out after conviction of Brisbane man over interactions with a computer-generated image of Sweetie.
Australia’s leading civil liberties advocate has spoken out about the use of online avatars to catch out accused sex offenders, following the conviction of a Brisbane man over sexual interactions with a computer-generated image of a non-existent nine-year-old girl.
Terry O’Gorman, president of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, said such use of avatars by private groups was akin to vigilantism and “a step too far”.
Scott Robert Hansen was sentenced on Tuesday to imprisonment over sexual interactions with “Sweetie”, a computer-generated identity used by a Dutch charity whose parent organisation discovered a child predator in its own ranks 17 years ago.
He was the first person known to have been convicted from a worldwide net cast by Terre des Hommes operatives posing as a fake nine-year-old Filipino girl for 10 weeks last year.
The child protection group recorded his chatroom conversations and a sex act filmed on a webcam and handed them to Australian federal police.
Controversy surrounds the emergence of smaller groups in the UK describing themselves as paedophile “hunters”. Unlike Terre des Hommes, some of these groups seek to out their targets on the internet before informing police.
Last year UK police warned that “hunters” were sometimes ruining the lives of innocent men – some driven to suicide – and tainting evidence against real paedophiles.
Hansen, 38, who had a history of exposing himself to children, pleaded guilty in Brisbane district court to charges including “using a carriage service to transmit indecent communication to a person under 16 years”.
Judge Ryrie ruled that Hansen’s belief the girl was real was “good enough” under the law and sentenced him to two years in prison, suspended after 260 days already served.
But O’Gorman said it was only a matter of time before similar cases were tested in court by defendants who chose to fight the charge.
Authorities should “draw a line in the sand” and not prosecute in what had become a legal and moral “grey area”, he said.
Police posing as children online are forbidden from goading people into offences.
But “a private organisation that isn’t subject to the same prohibitions, actively setting up an entrapment scenario” creates a “significant ethical dilemma”, O’Gorman said.
“It’s a really worrying and almost vigilante approach by this child protection group to set up an avatar in a manner designed to induce a belief in the person charged that he’s dealing with an actual child,” he said.
“The whole issue of child protection and paedophilia has in the last 15 years moved from dealing with an actual problem to a really worrying grey area of creating an artificial situation and then criminalising people for acting.
“It is understandable that the law would criminalise men having virtual sex dealing with the image of an actual child.
“It was never the intent of the law to deal with a fictional child, namely an avatar, let alone where the entrapment – because it is entrapment – is carried out by a child protection group.
“There must be inevitably be a case where some person will plead not guilty on this set of facts and whether a court would allow a prosecution to go ahead, and whether a jury would convict is a very real, live question for future cases.”
O’Gorman said the need to protect children “particularly overseas, from a growing market, from being abused [is] an acceptable basis for criminalising action”.
“But to then move it to the spectre of using an avatar to pretend it’s a child, I think is just a step too far,” he said.
“There has to be a limit in the involvement of the criminal law and a limit in the role of the state, and I think this exceeds both of those limits.
“One would be very concerned if the police in Australia or elsewhere conclude, well, the private child protection group has had its actions endorsed by the person being charged, we’ll move into that area.”
Terre des Hommes has reportedly offered to provide police services with the technology it used to create “Sweetie”.
In 1997, Terre des Hommes’s Swiss parent sacked its representative in Ethiopia, David Christie over an “inappropriate sexual relationship” he had with one of 300 orphans in his care.
It admitted it made mistakes by not telling Ethiopian authorities about his activities. But the charity later thwarted Christie’s bid to work again with children in Pakistan.
Hansen, who has been diagnosed with mild autism and once complained through his lawyer of not being able to afford psychological treatment, was one of 1,000 names given to police worldwide by the Dutch arm of Terre des Hommes.
According to chat logs obtained by BBC news, Hansen started by asking “Sweetie”: “hi u really 9yo”, soon adding, “I like asian chicks, are you ... for action”.
Hansen later told the operator: “i’m naked, ever see a guy naked?” before performing a sex act via webcam.
One Hommes Des Terres operative said Hansen was “very direct, at one point he asked us to get our fictional eight-year-old sister involved. It was very difficult to go to sleep at night after interacting with someone like Hansen.”
The operative said Hansen nevertheless was “not even amongst the most serious” of the child predators the group encountered during its campaign.