Austrian authorities said Wednesday they have uncovered a major international child pornography ring involving more than 2,360 suspects from 77 countries, including hundreds in the United States, who paid to view videos of young children being sexually abused.
The children were under the age of 14 and screams could be heard, said Harald Gremel, an Austrian police expert on Internet crime who headed the investigation.
Interior Minister Guenther Platter said the FBI was investigating about 600 of the suspects in the United States. German authorities were following leads on another 400 people, France was looking into about 100 others, and at least 23 suspects were Austrians, he said.
But later on Wednesday, U.S. authorities told NBC News that, while they are in the very early stages of investigating possible U.S. suspects in the case, they believe the number of Americans involved will be substantially lower than first thought.
In fact, according to FBI and Justice Department officials, the number may turn out to be fewer than 100.
Platter said videos downloaded from the Internet and seized by Austria’s Federal Criminal Investigations Bureau included images that showed “the worst kind of child sexual abuse.”
Gremel said “girls could be seen being raped, and you could also hear screams.” Although officials initially said the children ranged in ages from “0 to 14,” Gremel later said no infants were seen in the videos.
Austrian suspects from 17 to 69
No Austrian suspects were yet in custody, authorities said, adding that they shared their information with law enforcement in other countries in hopes that suspects could be investigated and charged. Gremel said he could not provide details about investigations outside Austria, but noted that cooperation with Russian authorities had intensified over the past two weeks.
Platter said 14 of the 23 Austrian suspects had confessed to downloading the material. They included students, government employees and retired people, and ranged in age from 17 to 69.
Possession of pornography involving children under 14 years old can bring a prison term of up to two years in Austria. Production and distribution of child pornography is punishable by to 10 years in prison.
Austrian police seized 31 desktop computers, seven laptop computers, 23 hard disks and other storage devices, 1,232 DVDs, 1,428 diskettes and 213 videocassettes in raids.
The investigation began in July when a man working for a Vienna-based Internet file hosting service approached authorities at the Interior Ministry to say he noticed the pornographic material during a routine check, Gremel said.
The man blocked access to the videos while recording the I.P. addresses of people who continued to try to download the material, and gave the details to authorities. Neither the man nor the Vienna company were identified, and police said neither was implicated in the case.
Within a 24-hour period, investigators recorded more than 8,000 hits from 2,361 computer I.P. addresses in 77 countries ranging from Algeria to South Africa, Gremel told reporters.
The videos were posted on a Russian Web site, and users had to pay $89 to access the material, Gremel said.
He said investigators believe the videos, which included images of girls and boys up to age 14, were made in Eastern Europe and uploaded to the site from somewhere in Britain.
In May 2006, police in 12 European Union countries and the United States searched more than 150 houses and arrested several people suspected of being involved in child pornography.
That swoop was prompted by Dutch intelligence about an Internet message board whose members’ activities included possession and distribution of child abuse material.
The network used sophisticated techniques to hide members’ electronic identities and to post encrypted content for a short period of time on free Web services.