Outside certain privacy advocates and criminal defense attorneys, most Mississippians support Attorney General Jim Hood's efforts to prosecute sexual predators and child pornography criminals through the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Unit of the Attorney General's Cyber Crime Unit. Using Operation Fairplay software, Hood says he has identified "over two thousand perverts in this state who have downloaded child pornography, which carries a minimum mandatory sentence of five years in the penitentiary. It may take some time, but we're going after all of them in the very near future."

The story behind the software involves a maverick computer genius who turned from drug smuggler to terrorist fighter and now helps states find and prosecute sexual predators.

The Cyber Crime unit uses Operation Fairplay software to infiltrate online file sharing networks like LiveWire and Gnutella to pinpoint computer users who download or share child pornography. Mississippi was one of the earliest states to use the software and first launched it with the help of a federal grant from the Department of Justice. To ensure the operation continued when the grant expired, Senator Gray Tollison (D-Oxford) introduced Senate Bill 2978 during last year's legislative session which added an additional fee on traffic violations to fund the Cyber Crime Unit. The legislature passed and Governor Haley Barbour signed the act.

Flint Waters and Hank Asher are the brains and capital behind the Operation Fairplay software. Working with states like Mississippi, Florida, Wyoming and Virginia, their software is targeting those who consume or trade in child pornography. Waters, Asher, and former Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore are working on the next level of internet child protection through their company TLO. (Moore is also Asher's attorney in a lawsuit filed against him by Lexis Nexis alleging a violation of a non-compete agreement. Asher has filed a countersuit against Lexis Nexis for one billion dollars in damages.)

Asher's story could be a movie: a self made millionaire corrupted by money or adrenaline, redeemed to fight crime and inspired to hunt down terrorists.

Vanity Fair profiled Asher in December 2004. Asher dropped out of school at age 16 and started painting houses and radio towers. When winter came to his Indiana home, he realized he would be out of work so he moved to Florida with $7 in his pocket, got a job painting, and within five years had secured contracts to paint sky scrapers, had 100 painters working for him, and was grossing $10 million a year. He retired at age 30 and began to enjoy the toys of the Florida elite in the early 1980s: fast boats, private planes, Caribbean vacations and cocaine smuggling.

He admits to flying in hundreds of kilos of cocaine into Florida at least seven times over a seven week period. Soon he realized his "friends" in the drug trade were dangerous criminals and he got out. Later, he voluntarily approached and worked with the Drug Enforcement Administration to persuade his fellow colleagues to get out of the drug business. Thanks to the statute of limitations, he was never prosecuted. But in his move from crime to law enforcement, he found purpose.

Asher saw an opportunity to make money by providing Florida insurance companies with a program to search information on the state's 26 million vehicles. Using purchased public data from the Department of Motor Vehicles, he wrote computer code more sophisticated and user friendly than anything on the market: AutoTrack. The program blew away anything the police used as well. Soon insurance companies and law enforcement agencies were signing on. Asher approached John Walsh with America's Most Wanted and donated AutoTrack to the program and to Walsh's National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Asher's career in data and technology continued through various ventures, and then on September 13, 2001, he turned his attention on terrorists. By now, Asher had built perhaps the largest private database of individual information in the country. He started programming Thursday night, two days after the terrorist attacks, and by Friday morning had constructed algorithms to search his 450 million person electronic database. He called it MATRIX: Multi-state Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange. The programs created 419 high interest targets. He invited in the FBI which was stunned at the material he could produce - from public information - that federal investigators in this pre-Patriot Act era could only get with warrants. Asher built a room at his company with twenty workstations, secured it even against himself, and donated it to the federal government which manned it with investigators 24/7 for several years.

Not satisfied with terrorists, Asher and his colleagues now work to target crimes against children, like with the Operation Fairplay technology. Putting politics and people's past aside, it is an effective tool to help secure the safety of children in Mississippi and around the country.

Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Contact him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.