SVU Episode #14-6: Friending Emily

There are lots of SVU drinking games, but the most potent for tonight’s episode would involve drinking every time new technology was mentioned. Malware, darknets, onion protocols … you’d soon be drunk as those frat boys in the first scene. “Friending Emily” took every parent’s worst fears about modern technology and crammed them into one terrifying and overblown story about online evils, kidnapping, and child pornography.

Recap: Two cute sisters are on a high school trip to New York. Looking for fun, they accept an email invitation from Wendi, a cool older girl at their hotel, and end up going to a raging frat party. 15-year-old Taylor ends up having an illegal, but on-the-scale-of-SVU not terribly disturbing liaison with a 21-year-old frat boy. But 14-year-old Emily befriends a mild thirtysomething named Peter who spikes her drink and stuffs her into the trunk of his car, which she captures on her cell phone video. [Drink.]

The SVU detectives talk to the frat boys and learn Peter is an older brother from a western chapter of Tau Omega. Great lead! So we’ll call Tau Omega’s national office and find out who he is, right? No. We’ve got an hour to kill here, people. Instead, we’ll follow Emily down a rabbit hole of online horrors.

To begin, Peter scoped out Emily beforehand by spying on her via malware he installed on her phone via Wendi’s initial email. [Drink.] He mined Emily’s data for nuggets such as, “she liked the Tarheels,” which made it easier for him to chat her up. (How would he possibly talk to her without that sort of insider info?)

Using facial recognition software [drink], the detectives soon find Emily online — her image is being live-streamed [drink] from a bedroom where Peter leers ominously at her. “I’ll come back in a few days to take requests,” he says, stroking Emily’s cheek and giving our detectives an urgent deadline to race against. See, Peter is a pornographer with a huge audience, and he’s been raping girls online for years. Emily will be next – if our detectives don’t stop him.

Amanda clicks away at her computer, frantically trying to trace the location where Peter is live-broadcasting. But, “the IP addresses are invisible,” she says. [Drink.] “They’re using onion protocols … darknets … digital clearinghouses… trojan horses.” [Drink, drink, drink. And drink.]

Turns out, Peter’s child-porn empire uses an anonymous server which deliberately protects the anonymity of its users. [Another bottle, garcon!]

To help navigate this online maze, our detectives visit a burned-out federal investigator who’s so overwhelmed with the thousands of online child-porn images he’s viewed, he doesn’t even straighten up in his chair when they walk in. But he tips them off to a recently-arrested hacker who uses a clever computer virus to pinpoint Peter’s location. [I certainly can't drive.]

But when Nick and Olivia get to the house … Peter and Emily are gone! In their place is a flat-screen TV, from which they see Peter holding Emily at a different location! And Peter is e-taunting the NYPD! “Careful, detectives. We’re live.” Nick watches in horror as Peter’s hand creeps up Emily’s thigh on the webcam. [The room is spinning.]

But Amanda rushes in with an iPad (what else?) and shows Wendi that her parents have been searching for her all this time, contrary to what Peter told her. See, Wendi was Peter’s victim before she was his co-conspirator. E-chatting with her mom on Skype, Wendi breaks down and confesses where Peter is. The police rush in and arrest him before his hand goes any further up Emily’s skirt. The webcam blinks off. [Crawling to the bathroom.]

Verdict: C+

What They Got Wrong:

It would be a rare case where a “professional” child pornographer actually kidnapped a child to sexually assault on film. There are so many more vulnerable victims – mostly runaways and throwaways, even some kids whose parents are willing to sell them – that pornographers hone in on them. This is a crime horrific enough to justify its own story, without the sensational element of forcible abduction.

I started throwing Halloween candy at the TV when Peter started taunting the police in his live-streaming online rape. This is a ridiculous conceit that only happens on the silliest TV episodes. In twelve years as a prosecutor, I never saw anything that even came close. Pornographers don’t invite the police to their rapes, or make fun of them for not rsvp’ing on time.

What they got right:

Child pornograhpy is a growing problem, fed in large part by the Internet. According to the Justice Department, “By the mid-1980′s, the trafficking of child pornography within the United States was almost completely eradicated.” It used to be expensive and hard to distribute. But with the Internet, pedophiles can share illegal porn with a click of a button. By 2003, more than 20,000 images of child pornography were posted online – every week.

While technology is used to create child porn, it is also crucial in fighting it. The police recently tracked the image of a teddy bear in one video to bust a horrific ring of alleged child pornographers who allegedly shared fantasies about raping and eating toddlers.

Law enforcement officials who work in this field do have to look at thousands of incredibly upsetting images every month. Organizations like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children use facial recognition technology to match missing kids with online images – but some humans still have a better capacity for recognizing faces. The professionals who do this have to have regular counseling. (Unlike the character tonight, the people I know in this field are incredibly energetic and devoted to their work.)

The anonymous server Peter used tonight – aka the “darknet,” onion protocol,” etc. – is based on real stuff. Real-life anonymizers instantly make tracking their users almost impossible. These servers are used by an odd combination of political dissidents and hardcore criminals. The FBI was reported to have seized – and mysteriously returned – such a server after bomb threats this August.

Scary but true – spyware on your cellphone can mine your data. We’re not just talking emails or photos. A virus can remotely seize control of your camera and use it to take surreptitious photos of you in your house. Gah.

What do you think SVU fans? Are you going to put masking tape over your phone’s round little camera eye now? Did you skip trick-or-treating to watch tonight’s show? And under what circumstances would you live-taunt the police while committing a horrific crime? Leave your comments.

About Allison Leotta

Comments

  1. James Pollock says:

    Your definition of “new technology” and my definition of “new technology” differ significantly. All of the things you list existed before I started law school in 2007 (I was an IT system administrator at a college back then.)

    Also, I think your shortcut of looking up the guy in the frat’s national registry would have failed for the simple reason that the guy was never a member. Why didn’t the brothers notice this fact? Because he was bringing stuff with him when he showed up for their parties.

    The IT “what they got wrong”. No matter how good you are with computers, you can’t trace anyone connected to a website unless you have access to either the ISP’s router or the web server itself. Both of these are very likely located outside the USA, so you aren’t getting that even with a court order.

    It is remarkably easy to scan a suspect computer (or data flow, if you have access to that) for “identified” child porn. (“identified” child porn is a image in which the identity of the victim is known and the image is known to be of an actual minor.) In other words, if one of these identified image files is found on a computer, a prima facie case for possession exists. Since most child porn consumers collect and trade, this is how most child pornographers are detected… random chance of a second person seeing something on a computer being a distant second. The FBI tends NOT to pounce immediately on child porn traders unless a child is currently endangered; instead they monitor the traffic in and out from their suspect to try to catch others. There are tools available to IT administrators (as opposed to law enforcement agents) to detect child pornogrpahy traffic.

    Most of the elaborate proxy technology used in this episode is used not by political dissidents fearing reprisal (though they do, in fact, use it for this.) but by schoolchildren evading limitations set on their Internet access. The software to set one up is freely available, thousands if not millions of proxies exist, with new ones going up (and down) regularly. Any parent who believes that software on their computer is keeping their children from accessing inappropriate sites is sadly mistaken if little Bobby or Susie really wants to access them.

    • You calling me old, James? :)

      Seriously, welcome back. We missed you here last episode. And thanks for the technical points, they’re great. In fact, you’ve earned the honorary position of Technical Adviser to the Prime-Time Crime Review. Good news: its way prestigious. Bad news: the pay kind of sucks. Um, did I say “pay”? No, let me correct that. No one gets paid here, not even me. Did I mention that it’s waaay prestigious?

      • James Pollock says:

        No, I called the technology old.

        I, myself, am old enough to have started working with microcomputers since before IBM got into the business in 1981 (you can recognize those original model PC’s by the fact that there’s a place in the back to plug in a cassette recorder next to the place to plug in a keyboard.)

        It’s a fact that whereas a lawyer can look at a TV show and identify dozens of places where the writers either didn’t get details right or just skipped over important steps in legal procedure, the writers know as much about information technology as they do about law.

        Most common:
        Cross referencing data from different sources in seconds sitting at a desktop computer.

        Police have access to data instantaneously and in real time.

        Hackers can do anything they want the first time they ever touch a new computer, using only a few keystrokes on the keyboard.

        Hackers can do anything they want remotely.

        Computer displays with interesting graphical flourishes that a real programmer would have absolutely no reason to put in (but TV producers put in because it’s visual. CSI is a particularly bad offender on this one.)

        Computerized fingerprint matching that generates one, and only one, positive match on a given print and then stop matching.

  2. I am almost too drunk to watch your posted video. One almost always needs a bottle or two to even watch a show about kiddie porn. I would like to see the numbers now on how many images are downloaded in a week. It is the largest and most profitable business on the internet. I do have to disagree with you about child abductions resulting in child porn. I live in a town, in the midwest, that is close to the epicenter for child trafficking for the use of child pornography. Abductions happen frequently for this purpose. A good friend of mine, Angela Shelton did work for the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children, and she told me to not to raise my children in this area of the US because of the frequency and corruption she has seen happening here.
    So, food for thought!
    BTW, how about Rollins kicking ass in the end? I have an ex that I’d like to do that to…Go Girl!

    • And you thought Stabler and Amaro had issues. I don’t remember either of them pulling a gun on someone making advances towards their family members. Seriously, how many times was Stabler’s daughter involved with someone? And Elliot still kept from doing that.

      On the other hand it IS her place, and her sister only lives there by her good grace. I know a certain family member that I would love to have, learn this lesson.

      • Yes…And I would have been totally peeved had I walked into my house and seen my sister “doing it” on my couch! Nasty girl!! Anyhow, I get the distinct impression that there is more to that story that we are going to find out…Did Rollins have a thing with her sister’s hubby? Family secrets? and what about her sister’s comment “I wanted to be a cop first and you stole that from me…” Whatcha think? Let’s prophesy this out of the park!!!

        • Chris, your comment about the small town in middle America where kids are abducted for porn is chilling. I will look it up. Heck, you may have just given me the idea for my next novel.

          Loved the subplot with Amanda’s sister. Great analogy to Stabler, Josh. My prophecy: Amanda and Hurricane Kim both tried out for the force and only Amanda made it.

          • Allison, I believe the corruption of this small town was exposed during the Warren Jeffs trial. From what I understand, and I may need correcting on my interpretation, this small town was one of the midway pittstops (so to speak) for trafficking children between both coasts before shipping overseas. No one could stop it because judges, attorneys, cops, (virtually anyone with power) were all making a BOAT load of cash from it… I do not believe he kidnapped children himself (?), however, children were being taken from this small town middle America enough that there are huge billboards running down the highway stating “Stop taking and selling our children into slavery”. It is chilling!!!

            Hint!! Very close to St. Louis, MO

            Educate me if I am wrong…And I am glad I can be an inspiration to your creative process! :) And no wonder Hurricane (more like SNOW storm) Kim couldn’t make the force…She is a mess!

          • Corrupt officials and a crazy cult too! This story really has it all. It is now filed in my “ideas” folder (yep, I really have one). Thanks again, Chris!

          • :) Can’t wait to read it!!!

      • James Pollock says:

        We only saw Stabler and Amaro making a first impression. In this case, we saw the latest episode in a long-running series of events that included violence in the past.

        The law regarding whether or not deadly force is authorized varies from state to state. The general rule is that force is allowed to eject trespassers, but it must be reasonable. Is it reasonable for a woman to pull a gun to eject a trespasser who happens to be a larger male person who refuses to leave? I think the answer in most places is “yes”.

        Then, there is the other general rule that allows use of force (including deadly force) to defend one’s own home. Here, you have a person who has been physically violent in the past, who presumably had reason to expect that he would not be welcome by the owner/lessee of the property, who declined to leave when instructed to do so. Again, use of force is authorized.

        So, her use of force in this case is entirely excused for two different reasons, when either one alone would have been sufficient. Stabler had a habit of using force when force was NOT authorized, which is why his personnel file was so thick and he was “encouraged” to take an early retirement. Cops who use excessive force (force which is not authorized) are expensive for the city that employs them.

  3. Allegedly!! :)

  4. I’m always a little late to the party here because I DVR (drink) the show. I did enjoy Cragen’s comment about missing the old days when you knocked on doors. Had me laughing.

    A bit off topic, but I was watching an old episode of L&O: Criminal Intent and in a scene the M.E. announced the murder victim on her table had sex before she died. The detective asked her if the woman had been raped. The M.E. replied (something to the effect), “When they’re on my table, there’s no way for me to distinguish consensual sex from forced intercourse.”
    I thought, I bet Allison would approve.

  5. I believe that this was a bad attempt at a re-make of the episode 911 (from Season 7). Unfortunately it didn’t “flow” as well as that one did. This story seemed terribly compressed and overwritten, and in the end the case was too quickly and easily solved by the SVU. There were too many very convenient clues and coincidences to make it feel real. I almost felt like it was meant as a PSA for teenage girls and their parents (about the dangers of frat parties) rather than a real story. The 14-year-old looked obviously underage (jail-bait) and I can’t imagine her being allowed into a fraternity party in the first place. It was never clear how she got lured out to the car – was the pizza drugged? Was a gun pointed to her head? How did she go from being cautious and smart, to following the creep?

    The kidnapper/pornographer also seemed very amateurish in the end to have gotten away with years of kidnapping and child porn. I would think he would be very cold-hearted, threatening and manipulative and not terribly sympathetic towards the child. After all, his biggest goal is to make lots of money. The whole video thing with him and Amaro was ridiculous; if a guy like that even suspects there might be law enforcement anywhere near him, first thing he’s going to do is try to get rid of any evidence. And certainly not be seen in a video with the girl!

    When the SVU detectives first went into the investigator’s room with all the child porn hanging on the walls, they acted a bit shocked and surprised at what they saw. I would think they would be used to it by now (working for how long as SVU detectives?). Also, why no concern about other potential victims?

    Anyway, I’m glad they did cover this topic but I believe in real-life, child pornography belongs to the NYPD’s Vice Enforcement Sexual Exploitation of Children Unit, not the SVU.

    • Alenna, I had the same reaction. If Peter was looking for places to pick up 14-year-old girl, a frat party would seem to offer slim pickings. In real life, I never saw a case like that. A lot of sexual predators pick up girls in malls, at bus stops, and on subways.

      And, yeah, real SVU detectives would not be surprised by the porn images on the wall at all. Maybe Rollins and Ice-T were just surprised at the agents lack of manners.

  6. So, finally saw the episode. First of, let me agree with Alenna here. If I was to find myself in a college party (which occasionally happens) where there’s a lot of drinking and drug using going on (which is pretty much all of them), 14-years wouldn’t make it through the door. College students may be wild, but they’re not immoral.

    Rollins would be wise to kick her sister out, even if here boyfriend beats here (Chris and Josh, I think you missed that part). As a gambling addict, she is susceptible to other addictions as well. So you don’t want people checking their nose in the mirror in your own home. And if her “meetings” refer to the Anonymous meetings, Rollins might also consider some real therapy, rather than that shady, ineffective organization.

    Oh and the most interesting at the end: a Dutch sexologist proposed to make virtual child porn (i.e. ‘fake’ child porn) legal, so pedophiles trying to avoid making victims can let there steam off that way. Only in Holland!

    • No Toko, I saw that part. I took Rollins letting her stay there more as an older sibling watching over family, regardless of whether it’s naive of them to do so.

      I share an apartment with my brother, who right now is not making his rent, and is looking for a job. There are days where I feel like telling him to hit the road because he spends money on things he shouldn’t be. But he also has an addiction where he bites (and sometimes chews off) his lips. If he’s off his medication for long he tends not to think straight. Perhaps I am naive for letting him stay at my place rent free at times, but it comes with being family sometimes.
      So I can definitely understand Amanda letting her stay at her place, even if it might not be a good idea.

      “College students may be wild, but they’re not immoral.”

      Not all of them meet that criteria, some of them are capable of worse.

      • TokoBali, welcome back! Hope things are great in Holland. I agree that college frat parties are a silly place to go to try to lure underage girls (see above). That sexologist’s proposal is fascinating. It’s interesting that we’re even at the point where that is a technical possibility. I wonder how it would play out, empirically. Would virtual child porn reduce the number of victims used to create real porn, or would it just stoke desire for more?

      • Josh, I really admire what you’re doing with your brother. That takes a lot of heart and patience. I hope he’s able to get on his own feet soon. I know what you mean about being there for family. Your brother’s lucky to have you there for him.

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