There are lots of Law and Order: SVU drinking games, but the most potent for Wednesday night'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. The episode "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. Fifteen-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, Paeter 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.]
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-1980s, 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.
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