Dozens of suspects, including some as young as 12, have been arrested in connection with a child pornography investigation that began in southern Ontario and spanned many countries.
Details of the investigation – known as Project Hydra – were revealed by York Regional Police on Wednesday.
"Our project began with one child victim in York Region and through investigation has grown into a significant international project with thousands of potential victims," Inspector Tim Kelly said. "The investigation is ongoing and continues to grow with every stone that is overturned."
Police said 41 suspects have been arrested and 110 charges have been laid in North America. The charges include possession, distribution and accessing of child pornography. Seventeen of the suspects were arrested in Canada.
The investigation began in April last year after the Ottawa-based National Child Exploitation Co-ordination Centre told York Regional Police about images of child pornography that were uploaded from a residence in York Region.
After executing a search warrant at the residence, investigators learned that a young person had allegedly uploaded the images.
"The young person advised investigators that they had been chatting, sending and receiving child pornography with unknown people throughout the world via popular social networking websites and private chat rooms," Kelly said.
"Investigators learned that the young person had been a victim of child exploitation and had been coerced into providing self exploited images to the unknown people online."
That finding opened the door to a much larger operation.
Police contacted owners of the website used by the young person and identified suspects around the world who were exchanging child pornography through the use of cloud storage.
York region police then collaborated with the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, INTERPOL, the RCMP, the OPP and various other forces across Canada, many of whom launched parallel investigations.
Part of the efforts of York Region police included the creation of 356 investigative packages – containing screenshots of online chats, child sexual abuse images and locations of suspects – which were distributed to police agencies in 17 different countries to allow forces to take action in their own jurisdiction.
Investigators found that the child pornography victims ranged in age from infants to teenagers and were male and female.
"The abusers appear to be people the victims trusted or online predators that coerced the victim into creating child sexual abuse materials," Kelly said. "Investigators are continuing to use all resources available to identify any further victims."
Nineteen victims have been identified so far, police said, emphasizing that the collaboration across multiple forces was a key element in the operation's progress.
"The success of Project Hydra in identifying such a large number of offenders involved in the victimization of children across the world could not have occurred without the co-operation of all agencies committed to the investigation of such offences against children — the most fragile victims of crime," Kelly said.
Meanwhile, as a result of information uncovered during Project Hydra, RCMP in New Brunswick started an investigation that resulted in the arrest of a man who allegedly pretended to be a teenaged girl online and lured as many as 2,000 boys.
Police say the 24-year-old Moncton man, who cannot be named because of a court ordered publication ban, is facing several sex offences after allegedly luring boys between the ages of 10 and 16 from at least January, 2012, to last fall.
The Mounties say the man allegedly contacted the boys through live video chats of various social media sites including Skype, Facebook, Omegle and Vichatter.
Sergeant JeanMarc Pare of the RCMP's Internet Child Exploitation Unit said a video of a teenage girl that appeared to be live was used to persuade the boys to undress and initiate sex acts, which were taped and distributed on the Internet.
There are alleged victims worldwide, including in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia and Russia, he said.
"I've seen large numbers of images and videos seized, and I've seen a lot of victims on our cases, but in terms of video evidence of victims this was quite large," Pare said Wednesday.
"We're talking somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 victims."
Investigators say it's possible that some boys may not be aware they were victimized and police are urging potential victims to come forward.
Pare said police in Moncton secured a search warrant in December and seized computers and storage devices.
The man appeared in Moncton provincial court in February and was charged with making child pornography, possessing child pornography, making available child pornography, touching a person under the age of 14 for a sexual purpose, and sexual assault. He was remanded to custody.
The RCMP have posted a video on the Web asking the public and police departments around the world to share it on social media in an effort to reach as many potential victims as possible. Pare said police have already received a number of calls, but would not say what information was received.