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'Virtual' Porn: Born of Digital Wizardry

Technology: Images generated by computer are fast becoming nearly identical to real people in photos and films.


It's an image that seems weirdly incongruous: a computer-created picture of the head of wholesome, underage Britney Spears electronically pasted onto the body of an adult engaged in an explicit sexual act.

Fake? Of course, but the picture, and countless others patched together using similar techniques, have become a staple of online kiddie porn.

Between the clearly fake world of pornographic cartoons and the clearly real realm of actual children engaged in lurid sexual acts sits the amorphous field of "virtual child pornography."

Advances in computer technology have allowed photo enthusiasts, artists and movie makers to create images that are nearly indistinguishable from reality.

Pedophiles have embraced the same technology. Using easily available programs, such as Adobe Photoshop, pedophiles have poured out a flood of fake erotic photographs, in which one person's head, often a young celebrity's, is electronically pasted onto another person's body.

They can use the same tools to modify hard-core photographs of adults to make them seem younger than they actually are. And tapping into animation tools similar to those used by Hollywood's visual effects community, it is possible to create explicit sex scenes with children without using real children.

Law enforcement officials say that the vast majority of child pornography is real, not virtual. Yet they realize that, because of the increasing power of computers, that equation could be turned around soon.

Battle Brewing Over Morality, Technology

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision Tuesday was the first salvo in this futuristic battle over morality and technology. The court ruled that truly virtual kiddie porn, no matter how realistic it appears, is protected by the 1st Amendment.

"Clearly, the court is saying that it is not child pornography if there's no real child involved," said attorney H. Louis Sirkin, who represents the Free Speech Coalition, a collection of adult-film makers that challenged the federal statute before the Supreme Court. "Our position has always been simply that you can't prove that a person engaged in an activity is under age 18 if the person doesn't even exist."

This fight is, in essence, a product of the Internet revolution, which created a global marketplace for child pornography and spread the popularity of powerful digital tools to modify images.

The spark for the current debate is a 1992 case in which a Texan, Terry Kimbrough, pulled digital files off a Danish bulletin-board system. He was later indicted for "receiving" child pornography.

His attorney, Arthur Schwartz, argued that the government could not prove that the images had been made using actual children.

To prove that point, Schwartz put on the stand a graphic artist, who showed how even someone with basic computer knowledge could use a software program such as Photoshop to alter a photograph.

Though Kimbrough was ultimately convicted, the case alarmed politicians and law enforcement officials, who were concerned about the possibility of wholesale use of the digital defense.

The Images Are Easily Downloaded

The case coincided with the Internet boom, when personal computer sales were soaring and the technical boundaries of what people could artistically create at home were blurring.

Apple Computer Co., maker of the colorful iMac, ran advertisements showing children making their own animated movies and exchanging photos with friends.

Today, the most widespread use of these tools among pornographers is the practice of stitching together bodies, heads and sex acts into lurid combinations. The Spears photograph is merely one of a torrent of images easily downloaded from popular Internet venues, such as Yahoo's online clubs.

The Supreme Court did not rule on this digital technique, as neither side contested that such "morphed" images were illegal because some part of a real child was involved.

Of greater concern, though, was the issue of creating a virtual child. Though possible to do, the technology remains limited, even for the most powerful computers and filmmakers.

Hollywood studios have explored the limits of computer animation and imaging technology. Sony, Pixar, Industrial Light & Magic and others have produced digital actors with key roles in feature films.

Yet nearly all were nonhuman creatures, such as the mouse in "Stuart Little" and Jar Jar Binks, the Gungan sidekick from "Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace."

The reason was simply that creating digital human actors is exponentially more difficult. While they have been used in crowds and as virtual stunt doubles, few have played a role requiring an extreme close-up because it wouldn't stand up to scrutiny.

Even the team behind the computer-generated 2001 film "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" couldn't make its characters look authentic, regardless of the film's estimated $150-million production bill.

Truly "virtual" child pornography, created from scratch, is rare because it is too difficult for the average person to create, say law enforcement officials and sources at the Department of Justice.

Despite the court's ruling, few expect the technology to stop evolving.

"Anyone who has seen, for example, the film 'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within' can understand the government's concern," wrote Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in her dissenting opinion.

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