Germany checks 22 million cards for child porn payments

German police have collaborated with credit-card companies to search databases for data that could lead to those who buy child pornography online

German police have added a new weapon in their fight against child pornography on the Internet -- in addition to scouring IP addresses, they're now collaborating with credit-card companies to search databases for transaction information.

As part of an operation dubbed "Mikado," members of a special child-porn squad in the German state of Sachsen-Anhalt have worked with credit-card companies to pour over the transactions of more then 22 million customers. The search uncovered 322 people suspected of purchasing child pornography illegally over the Internet.

The database search was conducted by the credit-card companies, not the German police, which have no direct access to the financial records of people registered in Germany,

German data privacy laws allow police to ask financial institutions to provide data about individuals but only if the investigators meet certain conditions, including a concrete suspicion of illegal behaviour and narrowly defined search criteria, according to Johann Bizer, deputy director of the Independent Center for Privacy Protection in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein.

In the case under investigation, police were aware of a child pornography Web site outside of Germany that was attracting users inside the country. And they asked the credit-card companies to conduct a database search narrowed to three criteria: a specific amount of money, a specific time period and a specific receiver account.

"The police are not allowed to ask credit-card companies or banks to run a very broad database search," Bizer said. "They must have a concrete suspicion and provide very exact and limited search criteria."

While agreeing that tracking credit-card data -- in addition to an IP (Internet Protocol) address -- could deter online child pornography, Bizer warned that credit-card data monitoring could lead to mistrust, especially if customers aren't properly informed.

German police have been intensifying efforts to track down suspected child-pornography users in the country. Auction sites, exchange portals and chat rooms are prime targets of their monitoring efforts.

Although police have the technical ability to hack into private computers while users are connected to the Internet and are viewing child pornography, German lawmakers are still deciding on the legality of this procedure.

Abusers risk jail time if caught using the Internet to view and trade child sex photos and videos.

More than 800 cases of child pornography passed through the Baden-Wurttemberg district attorney's office in Stuttgart in 2006 alone.

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