Oh how I remember that fateful day. It was Summer 1997 and London was baking in the sunshine. I was roasting indoors, halfway through a severe 3-year bout of depression and agoraphobia. And I was drunk on a very cheap gassy cider, that was so foul it had the benefit of tasting precisely same on the way up as on the way down.

I had learned computer networking in the distant days when IPX/SPX was the protocol stack the cool kids used, and TCP/IP was that weird Frankenstein-like concoction dreamed up by the boffins on some American military/academic network.

I hadn’t had a computer for since I’d got ill, until now. The World Wide Web was ascending. But I was old-school and liked the idea of Gopher, WAIS (remember them?) and FTP.

So I explored the IP stack protocol by protocol, and happened upon a simple chat protocol. I connected to the biggest network, with the most popular client, and issued a command to get me a list of the thousands of chat rooms available.

And there at the very top of the list was a whole bunch of rooms whose names suggested they were created by and for paedophiles. I already had 10 years’ experience of hearing the tales of horror of women who had survived sexual abuse as children. And I had met several paedophiles in person. Not that they knew I was aware what they were.

And yet despite all this experience of knowing what paedophiles did, I never really believed child pornography could exist. I naively assumed it was an urban myth. I remember thinking “surely no one does that!

And yet here on this publicly open network were chat rooms whose names indicated they were devoted to child pornography. Shocked, I summoned a network operator. “Have you seen these rooms?” I asked.

“Yes we know all about them.”

“So why don’t you get rid of them?”

“Go read the First Amendment of the US Constitution.”

“I’m not American.”

“TS, this server is. US law applies. Bye!”

I disconnected and it was a long time before I went back there. It was when I was 2 years into a decade-long bout of severe depression and agoraphobia.

When I did go back, everything had changed. Shortly after my first encounter with that network, a war broke out between white-hat hackers and the chat network operators. The hackers demanded the network evict the paedophiles. The network responded along the lines of “we do not respond to threats and you’re not the boss of us“.

The hackers responded by bringing the whole network down for 2 weeks. At that point, the network suddenly realised that the hackers in fact were the boss of them, so they turfed out the paedophiles and the hackers let the network live again.

But the paedophiles decamped to another network. The problem was, their new network also had a number of genuine rooms for children and teens to chat in, and while the paedophiles were on the network looking for their evil material, they’d flood into the young people’s rooms. Sometimes they’d be upfront about being adults, but often they’d pose unconvincingly as children, and try to get their jollies by talking to children about sexual matters.

Determined to do something to stop them, I ended up joining a secret group of undercover paedophile-hunters. We couldn’t get the network operators to do anything (on this new network they also cited the First Amendment), and the police were rarely interested. But we could identify these men and supply intelligence to chat room operators so that they could be banned from chat rooms and kept away from children.

There were a number of methods. One of the easiest was to harvest the identities of denizens of the bad rooms, and compare their identifying information with those in the children’s rooms. Often we’d see someone in a bad room with a nickname like pervDad45, and see someone connected from the same network address, in the children’s rooms, called Sarah13f or some such. 

We could then inform the chat room operators and show them the evidence, and pervDad45 would be banned. But he’d be back with a new identity, day after day, even year after year. It was like being Sisyphus.

Then there was a much more odious form of hunting, which a hunter could ‘graduate’ to once they established themselves with chat room operators. It consisted of doing a parallel activity to the paedophiles themselves – with permission, lurking in the chat rooms with a nickname that suggested one was a teenager, and then just seeing what messages came in.

Some of them didn’t even say hello. They’d say something overtly perverted in their 1st sentence. They were my favourites because we could get rid of them without having the unpleasant task of talking to them. Others didn’t even say anything before sending, unsolicited, pornographic images. 

Here’s a sample, which I selected because it’s very mild compared with many of them.

<sk8boy> asl? [age, sex, location]

<Rachel13f> 13/f/england. u?

<sk8boy> 16/m/usa [despite his network address being in Lebanon]

<Rachel13f> cool

<sk8boy> do u masterbate?

At that point, we didn’t need to continue with him, we could get rid of him. And often, despite getting no response, he’d keep asking, adding “u there?” or “y u no talk 2 me?“. Some of them would witter on for half an hour. Some of them would get nasty.

<sk8boy> u bitch

<sk8boy> fuk u

<sk8boy> die slut

And then there were the truly monstrous ones.

<cooldood> do u luv ur family?

<Rachel13f> yes. why?

<cooldood> do u want them to die?

<Rachel13f> course not!

<cooldood> if u dont do wat i say ur family will die tonite

<Rachel13f> hmm. bet you don’t know where we live

<cooldood> i kno where u live. i am a hacker and can see all ur files

<Rachel13f> really? is this a joke? ok what’s my address?

<cooldood> dont play with me or i will kill ur family

The ban-hammer comes down on cooldood, while he ranted on and made more threats. He came back year after year, and I compared logs of his latest efforts with 5 years previously and the wording was 100% identical – he clearly kept his schtick in a text file and just pasted it in. The tragic thing is, if a child was particularly naive, she might be taken in by that.

Hunting these scum became my raison d’etre.

I’d get up at 5 or 6 in the morning, and take 5g paracetamol with 80g codeine and 400mg caffeine. Hunt for up to 12 hours. Sign off, with a pounding headache. Take 2g paracetamol with 32mg codeine and a black coffee. Eat dinner. Watch The Simpsons. Lie awake in bed replaying that day’s nastiest encounter and then fantasise about torturing that man to death.

But I outgrew fantasies of mere physical torture. It just couldn’t hurt them as much as I wanted to. So in fantasy I became a super-being who would identify a paedophile and rip open his soul and dump into it every moment of pain he ever caused to all his victims, simultaneously liberating the survivors of his abuse from their pain and giving it to him in one giant soul-shattering dose. Then I’d torture him physically to death.

I did this for 6 years. I was a self-loathing depressed agoraphobic at the start of it. By the end, I was a self-loathing depressed agoraphobic with a fanatical hatred for all men and a twisted mind filled with rage and venom. As I went to sleep each night I’d recite my personal motto in my head: male sexuality is toxic, repulsive and monstrous.

One day I just burned out. I could not face another paedophile. I had been feeling like that for a long time but felt I mustn’t abandon the children to these monsters. But I finally cracked, and the agoraphobia spilled over from my real-world life to my online life and I hid from the world outside, and also hid from the world online in a tiny secret chat room with a few other broken burned-out hunters. Some of them are dead now.

One of the final straws that persuaded me it was time to give it up was one quiet night in a children’s chat room. My group was one of three that I knew of that operated on that network. We could all spot each other although we had no official contact. I looked at the list of nicknames in the room: 5 automated chat robots, 4 hunters from my group, 2 from another group, 8 from the biggest group. No actual children at all. I sat there laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation, and thought what am I doing with my life?

The next day I couldn’t go back in the public rooms. I just wanted to hide forever.

Another reason to stop was realising I was addicted to the thrill of the chase. We were not meant to be there for thrills. We left that kind of game-playing to glory-seeking dilettante groups like Anonymous.

I kept all this secret because I thought that me spending all my time doing that would look at best unhealthy, and at worst suspicious. So the only people I could talk to about the horrific things I heard were the other members of my group, all but one of whom were even more damaged than me.

I’ve pondered offering my expertise to CEOP, as the biggest factor hampering our groups were we were not law enforcement agents. We could do nothing except try to keep these men out of children’s rooms.

But no. I have visited Hell and found out I am not Ksitigarbha. I will not go back there.