The veteran cop was becoming frustrated in his battle against child pornography on the Internet and needed help.
So he fired off a shot-in-the-dark e-mail to the world's richest man.
"Was I expecting Bill Gates to read it and actually respond, if it even made it to him? I would have considered that to be a bit of a miracle," Detective Sergeant Paul Gillespie of the Toronto Police sex-crimes unit said in an interview yesterday. "Three weeks later, I got a call from Microsoft Canada, and they said, 'We'd like to come to talk to you about your e-mail.' It's like, 'You're kidding, right?' "
The simple e-mail, sent last January, asked Mr. Gates for resources and technical expertise. It set in motion a chain of events that has partnered the world's largest software company with the Toronto Police and provided another spark in Microsoft's effort to try to do something about the filth and danger that lurks in much of the Internet.
Redmond, Wash.-based Micrsoft, through its domestic arm Microsoft Canada in Mississauga, Ont., donated new equipment and software to the Toronto Police. The company is also working on new software to help detectives go through thousands of images of suspected child pornography on seized computers.
This week, Microsoft took another step, announcing the closing of its free on-line chat rooms. In his meetings with Microsoft, Det. Sgt. Gillespie identified such chat rooms as a major issue in the struggle to contain pornography and predatory advances against children.
Instead of the wild free-for-all that chat rooms are today, Microsoft is making the popular service part of a software package available only by credit-card purchase. The hope is to make it more difficult for people to operate on-line anonymously.
"The bad guys are winning," Det. Sgt. Gillespie said. "We're losing the race, and it's becoming pretty apparent that we better do something. If you're even just a little bit good [with computers]as a bad guy, it's pretty hard to get detected."
Det. Sgt. Gillespie, who leads a team of 11 Toronto officers, warns people not to underestimate the problem.
Research has suggested that almost all children who use the Internet are exposed to pornography at some point, and four out of five see hard-core porn. Last year, the U.S. Customs Service estimated that 100,000 Web sites peddle child pornography.
Children's trusting natures expose them to danger. More than half use instant messaging to chat with people they've met only on the Internet, according to an extensive survey by Toronto-based Environics Research Group.
Facing such varied challenges, Det. Sgt. Gillespie turned to Microsoft. Paula Knight, Microsoft Canada community affairs director, and a colleague visited police headquarters on a rainy Friday afternoon earlier this year.
"They understood there was a problem," Det. Sgt. Gillespie said. "But, like most people, they certainly had no idea of the depth. Most people have the same image, a 12-year-old on a beach frolicking or perhaps in a bathtub. That's not what we're dealing with. I showed them some images involving babies, brutally terrorized and raped. Babies in diapers. People don't get it. But after my presentation, they got it. They were very emotional and said, 'We'll do whatever we can.' "
The first meeting led to many more. Early this month, Det. Sgt. Gillespie, Chief Julian Fantino and some others joined Frank Clegg, president of Microsoft Canada, in a trip to Microsoft's head office, meeting with the company's top counsel, chief security officer and a strategy director.
In an interview yesterday, Mr. Clegg said Microsoft is realizing it has to do something.
"We tend to get excited about all the positives," he said. "We've accepted there's a role we can and should play to lead and deal with these issues."
He recalled the start of the process as Det. Sgt. Gillespie's e-mail to Mr. Gates, which was passed on to him. Mr. Clegg said Mr. Gates forwards him about one such call for help every month.
"Bill said, 'Frank, I'd like you to look at this and see if there's something we can do to help.' "
To Mr. Clegg, who has worked for the software giant for a dozen years, this project has been one of the most rewarding in which he's been involved. "I've gotten more satisfaction out of this than anything I can remember."
And the visit to Microsoft's head office has put Canadians in charge of a global effort. Mr. Clegg said Microsoft Canada is leading what the whole company is thinking on the issue, which has been made a priority, like its battle against e-mail spam.
It's personal, too, for Mr. Clegg. He has two daughters, aged 12 and 17. Recently, his older daughter was in a one-on-one chat on-line and the topic turned to sex almost immediately.
"Dad didn't want to hear any more about that!" Mr. Clegg said, encouraging parents to speak seriously with their children about the topic.
The efforts with Toronto Police are in an early stage. Mr. Clegg didn't disclose the company's investment. "We've taken a step. We'll fund it as much as we can."
The initial goal is to develop software for the Toronto Police, written using open standards that make it far more flexible than Windows, for example. This would allow the work to be used by other police forces in Canada and possibly around the world.
Det. Sgt. Gillespie is positive.
"It appears it's going to be very significant. Microsoft stepped up to the plate. They didn't have to do this."
The first tool, the new software to scan suspected child porn images, is a key. A couple of years ago, computer hardware generally supported the storage of only several hundred images. Today's computers can contain thousands, if not upwards of a million. For an officer putting together a case, that's pretty much an impossible amount to work through.
"There's the human factor," Det. Sgt. Gillespie said. "Could you assign somebody to sit at a computer and look at a million pictures of babies being raped?"
As computers get faster and storage capacity grows, the Microsoft program to comb through images becomes even more important in the fight against child pornography, Det. Sgt. Gillespie said.
"Like Bill Gates said, there's going to be more [computing]advances in the next 10 years than there has been in the last 40. We already can't handle the volume. So, basically, my e-mail said, 'Technology is obviously your area. It's not ours. We're policemen, and we need help.' "