Law enforcement keeps a library of the digital signatures of known child pornography. Their primary way of detecting child porn viewing is by seeing digital signatures of such files going to a particular person. Then they get a warrant based on that information, seize the person's electronic devices and look for copies of the material on the person's devices.

Here I consider the many ways that things can go wrong in that process.

Law enforcement does not get a person's name associated with those files, they get an IP address. People who use the same WiFi system share an IP address. When police raid a home, they typically take all the electronics, as they don't know which family member they are looking for. This includes female relatives, who are statistically less likely to be looking at child porn. But is the family enough? The owner might have given WiFi access to neighbors who live close by as a cost-saving measure. If the network is not password-protected, it could be used by any neighbor or someone passing on the street. It could be used by a house guest who was given the password. It could be used by that same house guest months or years later, if they park nearby long enough to download their illegal material.

When police search a home for drugs or weapons, the search is concluded in a matter of hours. Anything that has not been taken is available for the family to use. This is not true of electronic devices seized in CP investigations. They are often not returned for months or years, even if they have no illegal material on them. The devices may contain confidential, personal material that is not illegal but embarrassing. They certainly contain vital information a typical person in today's world needs to navigate life. Most people who do not expect to get their electronics back for months will be obliged to buy replacements, making the old one if returned next to useless.

There is also a grave stigma attached to a child porn possession investigation, as there is to anything that suggests pedophilia. Drug possession has nowhere near the same stigma, especially in neighborhoods and social circles where it is common. Along with the risk of targeting too many people or the wrong people, the CP investigation will attach a serious stigma to them and other targeted people it decides not to prosecute.

The law has been framed so that any knowing possession of child pornography is a crime. But the intention is to catch people who look at the child pornography for purposes of sexual arousal. Since that is hard to prove, possession stands in for the actual wrongdoing. And yet how certain are we that possession really does show evidence of the crime that society intends to punish?

What of the journalist who seeks to write a story about child porn? What of the scientist who wants to study it? What about someone who has been abused and downloads child porn and perhaps just cries while watching it as part of their attempt to come to terms with what happened to them? What of a child who learns about sex and wants to know if people their age ever do engage in sexual activity and if so what it's like? This might be very common in "children" of 14 or 15. What of someone who is just attracted to things that are forbidden? It could well be that none of these people is looking at this material with any intention or actuality of sexual arousal. Does society really intend to slam them with the harsh penalties of child porn possession?

Police can hopefully sort out some of these cases after the fact -- though journalists and scientists live in genuine fear of conviction even if the evidence suggests they were not using the material for arousal purposes. But in the mean time, the police have seized the electronics of clearly innocent people and deprived them of their use, and cast stigma on an entire family.

All of those downsides need to be weighed against the upside. What are child porn possession convictions actually accomplishing? In today's world, money hardly ever changes hands. There is no market that fuels further child sex abuse in the service of making a profit. No child is aware of any given act of viewing or possession. There is no evidence that looking at such material leads a person to commit hands-on abuse, and <some evidence>  that it prevents it.

It's worth reflecting on why the law requires police to get a warrant before searching premises. From the police perspective, the best way to find wrongdoing is to search everyone's home. If resources don't allow that, next best is to conduct a search on the slightest whiff of suspicion. This is then subject to the abuse that they could suspect people just because they don't like them. People in general like their privacy and want to be left alone, free of intrusive searches. This is why the US has a constitutional amendment barring searches without a warrant. The police need to show probable cause that evidence of a particular crime will be found in a particular place at a particular time. As argued above, CP possession searches are especially intrusive. 

The UK's 1999 <Operation Ore> illustrates many of these factors in operation. It resulted in "4,283 homes searched, 3,744 arrests, 1,848 charged, 1,451 convictions, 493 cautioned and 140 children removed from suspected dangerous situations and an estimated 33 suicides." There were 4,283 serious disruptions to privacy, with 1,451 convictions -- two thirds were false alarms. The 33 suicides are the tip of an iceberg of enormous distress that only rarely led to suicide. Removing children from dangerous situations is a laudable goal, but the wording is telling. Would not the police report proudly on the count of children who were not just in "suspected dangerous situations" but actually being abused if that was proven? Might that silence suggest the number was close to zero? And the cost to removing a child from a home is huge to the child. It's a good guess (see the Westermarck Effect) that almost none of the CP downloaders were an actual threat to their own children. On balance, Operation Ore caused far more distress than it alleviated or deterred.

But my main point about Operation Ore is that something under 3% of the searched homes turned up children at risk. If you searched 4,283 randomly chosen homes, you would find 3% with children suffering actual physical or emotional abuse or child neglect. But that would be precisely the sort of search that civilized societies have deemed unjust and wrong and that has led them to require search warrants.

Viewed from a rational perspective, tracking down CP possession crimes is simply and clearly not worth it.

What really drives these laws is a gut-level hatred of the very idea of adult sexual attraction to children. This hatred supports a willingness to punish many innocent people as the price of nailing some guilty ones -- and guilty of what? This is totally out of line with civil liberties and a free society, in which the law does not interfere with people's private behavior if it is not hurting anyone else.

Rectifying the injustice requires broader understanding of the basic facts: Pedophiles have a sexual attraction they did not choose and cannot change. Most mean no harm. A great many never act on that attraction with a child. Faced with no prospect of any sexual satisfaction in life, some give in to a temptation to look at past examples of child sexual abuse, though such looking does not directly harm anyone. This is morally questionable and no doubt disgusting to most people. But it is not a serious crime worthy of harsh criminal penalties. It is not worth allocation of scarce police resources and the disruption of the lives of innocent people.

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