US investigators smash large-scale child pornography operation involving over 250 children
More than 250 children as young as three and from as far afield as US, Britain and Australia were victims of secret pornography network with at least 27,000 subscribers worldwide
A massive international online child pornography ring, with victims aged as young as three from the US, Britain and four other countries, has been busted by America investigators.
Authorities announced the arrest of 14 American men who allegedly operated the underground members-only website, one of the largest ever dismantled, from the southern state of Louisiana.
More than 27,000 subscribers to the secret network around the world had access to 2,000 videos filmed on computer webcams of mostly teenage boys who were "enticed ... to produce sexually explicit material", officials said.
Investigators have so far identified 251 child victims, of whom all but eight were boys. There were 228 Americans and 23 from Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Belgium. The majority were aged 13 to 15, but 33 were aged under 12 and two were aged just three.
The organisation is "one of the largest known online child exploitation operations in history", said Jeh Johnson, the Department of Homeland Security chief.
Among those arrested was Jonathan Johnson, 27, the alleged administrator of the website, who faces between 20 years and life in life if convicted.
"Never before in the history of this agency have we identified and located this many minor victims in the course of a single child exploitation investigation," said Daniel Ragsdale, the DHS deputy director who headed the investigation.
He said the agency was fighting "a growing trend where children are being enticed, tricked and coerced online by adults to produce sexually explicit material of themselves".
Some of the 14 alleged operators assumed female identities to contact their targets on popular social network sites and then trick them into explicit online child activity.
They have been charged with running a child exploitation enterprise after allegedly distributing the material through the Tor network which allows Internet anonymity by hiding online traffic and a user's location.
The network, which was operated for a year from mid-2012 to last June, was unmasked after an item was sent through the US Postal Service to a child.
That led to the arrest of Mr Johnson and investigators then found evidence of the secret website on his computer. At least 300 subscribers to the site in the US and overseas face lesser charges.
The investigation, which officials said is continuing, was carried out by the cyber-crime unit of the DHS and the US Postal Inspection Services.
"While the predators' use of sophisticated technology has evolved, the core harm has not changed: a child's lost innocence," said Gerald O'Farrell, the head of postal service criminal investigations.