BOCA RATON — At any one time, some 750,000 pedophiles are prowling the Internet, the United Nations says. They might be lurking in chat rooms. Or swapping images of adults having sex with kids.
It's a virtual epidemic of child pornography, and to fight it, law enforcement officers from all over are converging on a cavernous building in South Florida. Here they have access to the most advanced technology for finding pedophiles.
But this isn't run by any government agency. The desks, computers, technology — all are provided free by a former drug smuggler named Hank Asher.
Called a "mad scientist'' by one employee, Asher has made a fortune collecting public records — deeds, lawsuits, voter registrations — and combining them into databases that can be invaluable in locating people. Plug a name into Accurint, Asher's best-known product, and you'll see addresses, possible relatives, licenses held.
It was Asher's technology that helped police find the Washington, D.C., snipers.
Now he is building a super computer and a database "a thousand times more powerful" than anything he has developed yet.
It's a project that worries privacy-rights advocates and other critics. They wonder if Asher's real reason for donating some of his technology to government agencies is to get access to confidential data like firearms registries, tax information, even health records — information that could be a boon to businesses and an unprecedented intrusion into the lives of millions of Americans.
"He wants to have every scrap of personal data that he can acquire on any and everybody,'' says Marion Hammer, a past president of the National Rifle Association. "I know that he has people working to find ways to get data from state agencies and of course there is data that we would never want him to get his hands on.''
Fueling speculation about Asher's motives are his controversial past and the fact he has hired many well-connected individuals. Among them: Bob Butterworth, former head of the Florida Department of Children and Families.
Asher acknowledges that his new database product could earn billions of dollars for his Boca Raton company. But he says he'll continue to provide his predator-tracking technology free to police and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"No matter what you think about him, he has a great record of philanthropy,'' says John Walsh, who helped start the center after his son Adam was murdered in Hollywood, Fla., in 1981.
Gerald Bailey, head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, applauds Asher's efforts on behalf of kids. But FDLE declined his offer of free space and his request that it assign someone to help develop better ways of finding sexual predators.
"I could never get a handle on exactly what the product was or what they wanted from us,'' Bailey said. "I did not want to be obligated to follow through with something when we're not sure where the end is going to be.''
Cocaine to computers
At 58, the thrice-divorced Asher is a long way from the "simple Indiana farm boy'' who moved to Florida and made his first fortune painting Gold Coast high-rises. He bought a house in the Bahamas and, as he has admitted, piloted several cocaine flights in 1980 and '81. (He was not prosecuted, and later cooperated with drug enforcement authorities.)
In the late '80s, Asher began dabbling with computers and learned to combine databases. He discovered he could buy databases not only from public sources like state motor vehicle bureaus, but also banks and other businesses whose databases contained Social Security numbers and other information not generally open to the public.
Asher's 1992 breakthrough was collating this wealth of data into an easily searchable product he dubbed AutoTrack. It proved a boon to police, who previously had to search many sources in doing background checks.
Even Asher was surprised by AutoTrack. Searching on his own name, he got a long list of "associated'' people, including "my ex-wife and her newest victim. I thought, 'What have I done?' ''
Forgoing what he says could have been millions in profits, he limited sales of AutoTrack to what he considered legitimate users like reporters and insurance investigators. The father of two girls, he also offered AutoTrack for free to the National Center for Missing Children.
"I think he shared my frustration that law enforcement agencies don't work together and don't exchange information,'' Walsh says. "I thought, 'Why not give it a go?' It turned out to be a huge boon to (the center) and America's Most Wanted,'' the TV show hosted by Walsh.
In 1999, Asher's drug-smuggling days returned to haunt him. The FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration suspended their use of AutoTrak, worried that his company, DBT, could potentially monitor activities in ongoing cases.
There was no evidence any cases had been compromised, but DBT's directors forced Asher to sell his ownership stake (he walked away with at least $117 million) in order to save the law enforcement contracts.
Asher already had started another company and was developing Accurint, faster and more comprehensive than AutoTrack.
Then came Sept. 11.
Acting on his own a few days after the attacks, Asher wrote a computer program so powerful it culled through data on hundreds of millions of people and flagged 419 possible suspects.
The hijackers' names were not yet public, but the program hit on one: Marwan al-Shehhi, a 9/11 pilot.
For months, Asher was stymied in efforts to demonstrate his program to top Bush administration officials. So in December 2002, court records show, he paid $2 million to Republican Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor turned lobbyist. He also gave a $15,000 watch to the wife of a California sheriff serving on a federal homeland security panel.
Barely a month later, with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush introducing him, Asher made his case to Vice President Dick Cheney and Homeland Security director Tom Ridge. Soon afterward, Ridge's office authorized a $12-million pilot project.
MATRIX — for Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange — was controversial from the start. Several states dropped out, concerned about costs and violation of privacy laws. The American Civil Liberties Union warned that people could be wrongly labeled as potential terrorists.
"There is a lot of scientific evidence that you cannot predict the actions of terrorists or criminals or anyone based on their computer profiles,'' says Chris Calabrese of the ACLU's liberty and technology project. "That's a very dangerous thing that could cause people a lot of harm.''
In 2005, the federal money ran out and the project ended.
"The existence of MATRIX should have been kept a national secret,'' Asher says.
'It's quite scary'
Frustrated by the flap over MATRIX, Asher sold his company in 2004 for $260 million. He helped care for his dying sister and established a cancer research center in conjunction with the Mayo Clinic.
Asher also started another company, TLO, and offered to develop, for free, a means of tracking children in state care. In 2001, 5-year-old Rilya Wilson had disappeared from a Miami foster home. She was missing for 18 months before anyone in the Department of Children and Families realized she was gone.
The idea for a tracking system was pushed from two main quarters: the National Center for Missing Children, of which Asher is a board member and major donor; and DCF, whose secretary, Butterworth, resigned in August 2008 and went to work for Asher.
Two months later, Butterworth's successor, George Sheldon, and other top department officials visited Asher's Boca Raton headquarters to hear what he had to offer.
Sheldon says Asher came across "like a really bright guy'' and demonstrated his search capabilities by pulling up reams of personal data on one member of the DCF group.
"I don't think the average citizen realizes how much information is out there,'' Sheldon says. "The collection of information about individuals can be a slippery slope, and I think government always has to be careful about that.''
Did Asher ask for any data from DCF in exchange for designing a free system?
"I don't think we got that far,'' says Sheldon, who adds that the agency decided to work with a company already doing business with the state.
Soon after that visit, though, several DCF employees met in Orlando with representatives of Asher's company, FDLE and other agencies. The main topic for discussion: a three-page list of databases that the National Center for Missing Children said could be helpful in finding child predators.
Among the databases: financial records, credit card data, even Blockbuster accounts.
From a privacy standpoint, ''it's a lot and it's quite scary,'' says Lee Tien, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Butterworth, who helped organize the meeting, insists it was only a "wish list'' and that no one expected to get access to so much confidential data. But he understands why people were spooked.
"Our biggest mistake was that we should have looked at privacy first,'' Butterworth says. "Then we would not have the problem we have now. If we could take that meeting back, things would be entirely different.''
Asher's company tried to organize another "brainstorming" session last year, and urged FDLE to send a representative. But the meeting never got off the ground: An e-mail obtained by the St. Petersburg Times reflects the skepticism of FDLE Commissioner Bailey.
"Bottom line,'' he wrote to his chief deputy, "this is a vendor asking us to help develop a product.''
One of Asher's current "passions,'' as he puts it, is combatting pedophilia.
Canadian researchers say as many as 4 percent of adults are sexually attracted to children. Most never physically act on their fantasies, but they have unprecedented access to pornographic photos, videos, even children themselves.
"The problems of pedophilia have exploded because of the Internet,'' Asher says. "It's an epidemic.''
Since 2008, his company has leased 143,000 square feet in the Boca Raton complex where IBM once made personal computers. Asher has set aside part of that space for investigators from the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office and other agencies to work on sex crimes against kids.
By law, Internet service providers are required to inform the National Center for Missing Children of any suspected child pornography detected on their networks. Those tips are turned over to law enforcement agencies, many of which use technology developed by Asher and his employees.
"We get requests from all over the world,'' says Flint Waters, a former Wyoming detective. "In 33 countries there are investigators who have access to this (technology). If they work here, they have the newest tools. If they have a need for forensic tools that our tools don't accomplish, we'll write it in a day or two.''
Waters and Asher say those "tools'' have led to thousands of arrests. Where investigators once had to send computers to a lab to see if they contained pornographic images — a process that could take six months, while a predator continued abusing children — "now they pop a disc in and it shows if there's child porn,'' Waters says.
Another tool lets investigators zero in on certain frames without watching all 20 or 30 minutes of a pornographic video.
Security in the law enforcement area appears tight, with surveillance cameras and restricted entry. Though his company provides the phones, desks and computers, Asher says he has no access to data on the hard drives or the server, which is owned by Palm Beach County.
"If the time ever comes that Hank profits from the cops, I hope they rain on him,'' Waters says. ''The commitment he's made to me is that he gives those tools away (to police).''
Commitments aside, there are no contracts with any of the agencies that have people working here, and the center seems to operate on a casual basis.
"I think it's 'at will.' They can kick us out if they want to,'' acknowledges Palm Beach County State Attorney Michael F. McAuliffe.
Still, he says, the free space and access to technology have been good for both taxpayers and children. The county's predator unit has made more than 30 arrests since setting up shop in May.
FDLE and other agencies, however, have declined the no-rent offer.
Despite his crusade against cybercrimes involving kids, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum did not want to be in a position "where there were any questions about whether the acceptance of that free gift would be appropriate,'' says spokeswoman Sandi Copes.
Asher says the new database "product'' he is developing — AK, for Accurint Killer — will revolutionize the businesses of assessing risk and investigating fraud. He plans to introduce AK in March at a conference of private investigators in Dallas, where he and John Walsh will be featured speakers.
Asher acknowledges that AK could be very profitable.
"Half-a-trillion dollars of fraud has come to us looking for remedies,'' he says. "I've never seen financial opportunities like this in my life. I think it will do several billion dollars a year.''
Could it also flag potential terrorists, like the Nigerian who got on a U.S.-bound flight Christmas Day despite many signs he was up to no good? Asher, whose MATRIX technology sparked such privacy concerns after 9/11, hints that it could.
"Our new systems have the capacity to address tomorrow's risks and threats. We have built the next generation of what I built before. It's going to be much less safe to be dangerous.''
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Susan Martin can be contacted at email@example.com.