One out of 25. That is the number of children that will be solicited online for sex according to a 2017 Purdue University study.

The growing problem of child sexual exploitation online is echoed by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) who reports that in 2020, their CyberTipline received more than 21.7 million reports, the majority of which related to “apparent child sexual abuse material, online enticement, including ‘sextortion,’ child sex trafficking, and child sexual molestation.”

Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that “up to 1 billion children aged 2–17 years, have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence or neglect in the past year.”  

Child sexual exploitation cases are skyrocketing and the trend is growing worse. Spurred by the pandemic, children during lockdown spent more time online than ever, making them prime targets for sexual predators who troll social media platforms, online games, and chat rooms in search of unsuspecting children to groom for sexual exploitation.

ICAC is Fighting Back

Law enforcement is striking back hard. At the vanguard is the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program (ICAC). This national network is comprised of 61 coordinated task forces representing over 4,500 federal, state, and local law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies. 

ICAC works with law enforcement to develop effective strategies to combat child sexual exploitation and internet crimes against children. (Credit: icactaskforce.org/)

ICAC’s mission is to “help state and local law enforcement agencies develop an effective response to technology-facilitated child sexual exploitation and Internet crimes against children.” The organization provides a wide range of support including forensic and investigative components, training and technical assistance, victim services, prevention, and community education. ICAC works closely with NCMEC, which sends reports from their CyberTipline to whichever ICAC unit is closest to where a report activity has occurred for investigation.

On the technical side, Cellebrite supplies the latest digital solutions and training to ICAC units across the US to jumpstart investigations and accelerate justice. The Seattle Police Department’s ICAC unit provides a good example of how ICAC units, in cooperation with NCMEC and Cellebrite, operate across the US.

As the lead agency for the State of Washington, Seattle PD’s ICAC unit is responsible for triaging and filtering all CyberTip referrals from NCMEC, as well as outside law enforcement assist requests. The unit also deals with any ICAC-related requests from foreign agencies or entities. They also field referrals from walk-ins who file reports at their precinct, from schools that file reports directly with them, and from law enforcement officers who might see something suspicious when making a routine traffic stop.

As Michael Edwards, Captain for the High-Risk Victims Section, Statewide Commander for the Washington State ICAC Task Force, and 40-year Seattle PD veteran explained, “We coordinate an awful lot of training and facilitate getting folks into that training, as well as [providing] case support, both investigative and forensic. And then we work seamlessly within both the state prosecution arena and the federal prosecution arena.”

Captain Edwards’ team handles about 425 to 450 referrals each month, though they have had months with as many as 1000 case referrals. “Typically, in any individual CyberTip, we’ll have upwards of a dozen to two dozen events that are associated with it,” Captain Edwards explained. “That means either a download or upload by a suspect. It can be on multiple platforms or individual platforms.”

Overcoming The Obstacles

Like ICAC units everywhere, Seattle PD’s unit faces a number of challenges in handling child exploitation cases.

Detective Ian Polhemus, 29-year Seattle PD member and ICAC veteran, and his dog, Bear, work as a team to find digital devices hidden by child-exploitation offenders at crime scenes. (Credit: Seattle PD)

Data Overload: The number of devices associated with cases continues to grow. While cases just a few years ago might have included a computer and a cellphone or two, typical cases today involve 20 or more devices. Given the capacity for modern devices to store ever-increasing amounts of data, it’s not uncommon for teams to be dealing with multiple terabytes of information for a single case.

Preserving Evidence: Having to manage large quantities of data to ensure the digital chain of custody is preserved so that all relevant evidence is permissible in court is job one, but teams face a multitude of other hurdles.

Encrypted Devices: As technology advances, sexual predators intent on hiding their activities are turning to encrypted devices, making them more challenging to investigate. Accessing high-end Android and Apple devices takes time, which is critical in the race to save children involved in sexual exploitation cases from additional harm.

The Cloud: Perpetrators are moving stored information—videos, photos—to the Cloud in an effort to hide their illicit activities, making them harder to trace.

The Dark Web: As one might imagine, the Dark Web has become the gathering place for those wishing to trade (or sell) child explicit photos and videos, which opens yet another front that investigators must tackle in their efforts to bring perpetrators to justice.

Privacy Issues: Lawfully collecting data must be done under strict legal warrants to ensure personal privacy is protected, which is why ICAC units follow strict protocols regarding data collection. Adhering to these best practices takes time, training, and dedication.

Time Constraints: As Captain Edwards pointed out, “Time is our enemy. Anything that increases that time profile for us, makes it so much more difficult. So, everything from storage, encryption, the fact that now even the storage itself, it’s no longer just on the device itself, it’s up in the Cloud, it’s internationally-based… There are all of these other things that we’re dealing with that we weren’t dealing with a few years ago that are causing us to now elongate that time period.”

How Technology is Helping

Working in partnership with ICAC units across the US, Cellebrite is providing both the solutions and training to help law enforcement lawfully access devices to collect the data that will help solve more cases faster and stop the suffering.

Cellebrite’s UFED and Premium solutions provide lawful access to the widest range of devices, allowing investigators to bypass pattern, password, or PIN locks to quickly overcome encryption challenges on popular Android and iOS devices.

Once data is lawfully collected, Cellebrite Pathfinder enables investigators, analysts, and prosecutors to collaborate using a comprehensive, scalable solution to surface relevant leads and discover connections that might be missed by the human eye. This allows them to identify the illegal activities and who is involved (both kids and those suspected of preying on them).

Analytics Solutions, like Cellebrite Pathfinder, help investigators automatically sort through data to surface key insights quickly. (Credit: Cellebrite)

Laws governing child sex exploitation are constantly changing. Juries and judges may not be up to speed on how the digital technology that is delivering key evidence works. This is why having solutions like those offered by Cellebrite to show how the data connects in a visualization that’s easy for judges and juries to understand is imperative.

Being able to support prosecutors in this manner leads to more convictions and takes more sexual predators off the streets faster so fewer children are harmed.

Case Study

Recently, Seattle PD’s ICAC unit allowed our video team to accompany them on a sting operation. This case shows how using digital intelligence can lead to the arrest of those who will stop at nothing to exploit children. The arrest of the perpetrator by Seattle PD’s ICAC unit is a testament to the training, skill, and coordination of these well-trained professionals who are protecting our children every day. You’ll also witness the amazing way the unit is employing K-9’s trained to sniff out electronic devices to find more evidence after investigators have thoroughly scoured the crime scene.

Conclusion

As “agents of change,” Seattle PD’s ICAC unit is constantly looking ahead, taking proactive steps to provide the tools and training for their personnel today to do a better job of keeping our children safe in the future. They’re also giving back.

Under the direction of 29-year Seattle PD member and ICAC veteran, Detective Ian Polhemus, Seattle PD hosts the annual NW Regional ICAC Conference. Now in its seventh year, the conference is helping educate law enforcement investigators, digital forensic examiners, and prosecutors from the US and around the world by providing highly specialized training focused on investigating and prosecuting technology-facilitated crimes against children. 

To learn more about Cellebrite solutions and how we’re partnering with law enforcement agencies to build a safer world, click here.

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