The Power of a Calling: Seattle PD ICAC Unit Puts Digital Intelligence to Work to Stop Crimes Against Children
This is article 1 in a 3 part series.
Child exploitation cases have skyrocketed, presenting agencies like the Seattle Police Department with a massive challenge to save more children from these heinous crimes.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) a private, non-profit organization that serves as the national clearinghouse and resource center for information about missing and exploited children, reports that in 2019, their CyberTipline received more than 16.9 million reports.
Most of these notifications are related to:
- Apparent child sexual abuse material
- Online enticement, including “sextortion”
- Child sex trafficking
- Child sexual molestation
Of those reports, 150,667 were from the public and 16.8 million were from electronic service providers.
Globally, the number is even more shocking with the International Labour Organization estimating that 1.8 million children are exploited in prostitution or pornography worldwide.
As evidenced in cases like the 39 children who were recently rescued in Georgia in a thwarted child-trafficking attempt, many of these cases require close coordination between multiple organizations. This is why so many agencies are transforming their investigation processes to maximize Digital Intelligence (DI), which is the data that is accessed and collected from ever-expanding digital sources and data types—smartphones, computers, and the Cloud—and the process by which agencies use this data in their investigations to more efficiently run their operations.
This strategy relies on having the right solutions and trained personnel in place to access and manage data in a forensically sound manner, then using modern analytics solutions powered by AI to automatically sort through mountains of data to find key insights quickly. Such findings can then be easily shared (when authorized) within departments or between agencies both nationally and internationally.
“One [goal] is finding children and rescuing children, and then prosecuting the predators and getting them the justice that needs to happen.”
In these turbulent times, when the brilliant efforts of so many hardworking law enforcement officers are being overshadowed by the actions of a few bad actors, it’s easy to forget just how many dedicated men and women are doing an exemplary job every day to save children from unconscionable acts at the hands of callous criminals.
The Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC) is one program that made a significant impact on solving more child exploitation cases faster. This national network is comprised of 61 coordinated task forces in the US representing over 4,500 federal, state, and local law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies. Their mission to “continually engage in proactive and reactive investigations and prosecutions of persons involved in child abuse and exploitation involving the Internet.” This places ICAC, which fully embraces DI as key in solving investigations, at the vanguard for fighting child exploitation.
To find out how ICAC really works, we recently sat down with several law enforcement professionals from the Seattle Police Department who have dedicated their careers to stopping crimes against children. The Seattle PD functions on several levels in these efforts. As the lead agency for the State of Washington, they are responsible for triaging and filtering all CyberTip referrals that come from NCMEC, as well as outside law enforcement assist requests. They also deal with any ICAC-related requests from foreign agencies or entities.
“We work very closely with the federal government as part of the national program,” says Michael Edwards, Captain for the High-Risk Victims Section, Statewide Commander for the Washington State ICAC Task Force, and 40-year Seattle PD veteran. “But we also have on our task force group members from HSI, the FBI, US Postal, and several others who assist in these complex case investigations.
“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. We have a state prosecutor who is embedded with us…who is also a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney. So we have footprints in both of those arenas as well.”
How ICAC Works
The Seattle Police Department provides a good illustration of how ICAC units function all over the United States. The majority of the child exploitation cases they cover come from NCMEC, which geolocates reports to the region and whichever ICAC unit is closest to where that report activity occurred. Any reports for their region come to Seattle PD’s ICAC Unit.
Like their fellow ICAC units, however, Seattle PD also fields child exploitation reports from other sources. These range from those who walk into a precinct to file a report to a patrol officer who goes out on a call or makes a traffic stop and sees something suspicious, to a school that calls directly into their offices. All of those end up being separate case referrals for them.
The Challenges ICAC Officers Face
Dealing with crimes against children cases is rife with challenges, particularly today when budgets remain flat, caseloads continue to grow, and staff is being asked to do more with less. The chief concerns of those at Seattle PD reflect the challenges facing ICAC units and police departments all over the world.
“We’re utilizing technology in a much broader way than we ever have in the past. Everything from video acquisition…to then being able to utilize tools to identify specifics that will help identify the perpetrators.”
Caseloads are increasing: “In 2014, as the lead agency, we were averaging between 125 and 150 referrals [from NCMEC] a month,” Captain Edwards began. “That’s just referrals. It doesn’t include the walk-ins or any of the others. Today, we are currently averaging between 425 and 450 a month. We have, unfortunately, had as high as 1,000 in one month, and that’s not been unusual for us…. We’re not seeing any reduction in the amount of work. In fact, it’s increasing. So the load on the folks that are here is very heavily exacerbated. And it’s really causing us a huge issue in just being able to manage and future project exactly what the needs are and then place in motion those things that will meet those needs.”
Each CyberTip has multiple events: “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.
Device numbers are growing exponentially: Randy Kyburz, a detective, digital forensic examiner, and 29-year veteran with Seattle PD spoke to the device problem this way. “When I first started this… we’d come out of a house with maybe one flip phone and a laptop and maybe a desktop. And that was a big case. Now we’re coming out of search warrants with 20 to 30 devices, and even [after] doing triage at the scene to eliminate a lot of those devices before we even have to take them.”
Technological advances are driving data overload: As Detective Kyburz pointed out, “in a typical case they’re carving through terabytes [of data], multi-terabytes, even.… Now, on the norm, 10 to 20 terabytes are not unusual.
Perpetrators are getting smarter: As Detective Ian Polhemus, another 29-year Seattle PD member and ICAC veteran since 2007 describes, “[suspects] have become more technologically savvy, much more so than when I started in 2007. Specific examples of that would include the dark web, peer-to-peer technologies, IP anonymizers, and proxies. All of these are different things that suspects have access to in an attempt to obfuscate their activities. That was much less utilized a decade ago, and yet it’s much more common today.”
Time is the enemy: Investigations are far more complicated and take more time, which is a huge problem in child-exploitation cases when you want to rescue children and stop the suffering as quickly as possible. 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.”
Threats to funding: Doing child-exploitation investigations takes a heavy toll on investigators and most move on after five to seven years. Replacing them is a real problem according to Captain Edwards. “You can only do this work for so long. So we naturally have vacancies that need to be filled. And there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty right now, with the defunding movement in particular, as to whether or not there will be personnel to fill those vacancies. So it’s not just for ICAC; it’s actually for the department as a whole….We’ve got an awful lot of folks that are choosing to leave this agency and go to other agencies. So really, the personnel strain that it’s causing is huge.”
The impact of COVID-19: The negative impact that the coronavirus epidemic has had on city and police budgets is a problem agencies all over the world are dealing with. Captain Edwards described, “I’ve got agencies across the state that are not able to fully meet their duties and responsibilities in the Task Force because they also are being hit economically, and are looking at not filling vacancies, or not being able to add personnel, or a complete slowdown in the hiring process. So, just being able to get the work done is a huge issue. But throw on top of that, for Seattle in particular, this heightened amount of uncertainty and concern, and now you’ve really got a perfect storm going on.”
How Technology Is Helping
Fortunately, technology is supplying some much-needed relief for Seattle PD’s ICAC unit and similar units around the world. Like many organizations, Seattle PD has transformed the way they are conducting investigations to utilize digital technology to its fullest extent.
Captain Edwards stressed the two overarching goals for his department: “One is finding children and rescuing children, and then prosecuting the predators and getting them the justice that needs to happen.”
In order to do that, his ICAC unit takes great pains to protect the chain of custody, which requires careful data management once evidence from devices is collected. “If content needs to be accessed or in any way, shape, or form handled or dealt with, that has to be done inside our facility.” This is one of the reasons he is such an advocate for having a strong digital evidence management system (DEMS).
“[Suspects] have become more technologically savvy… Specific examples of that would include the dark web, peer-to-peer technologies, IP anonymizers, and proxies. All of these are different things that suspects have access to in an attempt to obfuscate their activities. That was much less utilized a decade ago, and yet it’s much more common today.”
Agencies need to manage digital evidence as diligently as physical evidence. SOPs must be in place to maintain data integrity and a clear process must be adhered to so that the right team members get the right information when they need it. This is where having a DEMS that is linked to your case management system offers a huge advantage. By deploying DEMS, agencies can protect and manage appellate processes, simplify discovery, manage retention, and comply with expungement.
Like departments everywhere, technology is driving cases from the time an investigative team arrives at a crime scene to the moment a verdict is handed down in court. “We’re utilizing technology in a much broader way than we ever have in the past,” Captain Edwards explained. “Everything from video acquisition—be it privately owned, commercialized, whatever it might be—to then being able to utilize tools to identify specifics that will help identify the perpetrators. We’ll also identify other evidence that is available but may not have been collected by the individuals who responded to the scene. Scene analysis, reconstruction/recreation tools, all of those are out there. We’re utilizing those to a huge degree right now.”
Modern analytics solutions powered by AI are another way that technology is helping investigators to automatically sort through mountains of data to surface key insights quickly. This technology also helps reduce workloads while providing agency managers the full picture of an investigation because analysts can merge information from disparate mobile, cloud, computer, CCTV, and CDR data sources to provide teams with a full picture of data insights in a single view.
When authorized, analytics solutions are also providing the means for teams to share information across departments, agencies, and internationally, which is a huge help to units like Seattle PD who also collaborate with foreign agencies on some cases.
And while modern DI solutions still require manpower to drive key decisions during investigations, the time savings and peace of mind they can deliver to resource-strapped departments is helping many agency managers sleep better at night.
Guaranteeing ICAC’s Continued Success
What ICAC units across the world need to be successful moving forward boils down to some simple elements:
Funding: At a time when crime is on the rise, defunding police departments is not the answer, particularly in fighting crimes against children. By investing in units like ICAC, departments can add more investigators. This in turn allows them to process more cases. The result, as Detective Polhemus said is that “You get more cases, you get more bad guys, [and] you recover more children, right? All of that’s good.”
Training: Technology is changing rapidly and as Captain Edwards pointed out, training has a shelf life. As technology advances, officers need to take refresher courses to keep up. “Being able to identify technologies and training that will work, and appeal to a very diverse group [is key].”
Private/Public Partnerships: Detective Polhemus, who also runs the annual NW Regional ICAC Conference, sees partnerships and collaboration between government and the private sector as a key element in solving the training equation. “Looking at the conference that we run up here, it’s grown significantly in size over the last six years,” he said. “And one of the reasons for that is the financial support that we’re able to receive from private sector industry, not the least of which would include Cellebrite.
“A lot of times, within government, we don’t have access to necessary or required training, because of funding. And so this is just one other avenue that can be used to support that training piece.”
The Power of a Calling
With all of the challenges facing ICAC units like those in the Seattle PD, one might ask, why keep doing it? To the man, each of the officers we spoke with answered with humility and humanity.
“And really, when you look at wanting to help and make a difference, the most vulnerable parts of our communities in my opinion are children and the elderly. So anything that we can possibly do to positively impact the lives of those particular parts of our community, again, I find it very rewarding.”
Detective Polhemus summed up his team’s shared belief by saying that solving crimes against children is a calling. “In my 29 years in the department, I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve enjoyed every aspect of policing,” he began. However, I describe my tenure in ICAC as singularly the most rewarding. And that is because we’re dealing with children. Every case we investigate involves children, it involves felonies.
“And really, when you look at wanting to help and make a difference, the most vulnerable parts of our communities in my opinion are children and the elderly. So anything that we can possibly do to positively impact the lives of those particular parts of our community, again, I find it very rewarding. And despite all of the anti-police/defunding rhetoric that continues, I find that…the overall reward in what we do far outweighs the negative politics that are going on around us.”
The incredible work that Captain Edwards’ team is doing represents the kind of dedication taking place in ICAC units all across America. Like so many good police units, their work largely goes unheralded. When it comes to making our world a safer place, however, these officers are true heroes.