This is article 3 in a 3 part series. 

Crimes involving the sexual exploitation of children are on the rise. 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. The overwhelming majority of these reports related to child sexual abuse—online enticement (including “sextortion”), child sex trafficking, and child sexual molestation.

The global situation is equally grim with the International Labor Organization estimating that 1.8 million children are being exploited in prostitution or pornography worldwide right now.

ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children) units worldwide must be prepared to meet the growing demand for digital evidence that can flatten the curve of skyrocketing sexual abuse cases involving children.

Adding additional personnel is part of the solution, but even more important is the investment in training that needs to be made to keep ICAC units functioning at their highest level. Here’s why.

Escalating Challenges

Technology has exploded, flooding the market with cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices that are faster, cheaper, and more accessible to a broader spectrum of people than ever before. Everyone seemingly has a cellphone.

Mobile phones can now hold terabytes of data and many of the most recently released additions are protected by complex encryption codes.
Mobile phones can now hold terabytes of data and many of the most recently released additions are protected by complex encryption codes. Digital solutions, like Cellebrite Pathfinder, can help surface leads from mountains of data quickly.

As digital technologies continue to evolve, devices of all types are becoming more sophisticated. Mobile phones can now hold terabytes of data and many of the most recently released additions are protected by complex encryption codes.

“Being able to identify technologies and training that will work, and appeal to a very diverse group is tough.”

As child sexual abuse cases rise, so too does the number of devices law enforcement is seizing with 20 or more devices commonly removed under warrants in typical cases.

The sheer number of devices and the mountains of data they produce are leaving those who must collect, manage, and analyze digital evidence drowning in a sea of data.

The technology solutions lab examiners use to gather Digital Intelligence (DI), the data that is accessed and collected from digital sources and data types—smartphones, computers, and the Cloud—and the process by which agencies access, manage, and leverage data to more efficiently run their operations, are also evolving.

As the leader in Digital Intelligence solutions, Cellebrite is constantly upgrading widely adopted solutions like Cellebrite UFED and Physical Analyzer. And new solutions, like Cellebrite Pathfinder, are harnessing the power of AI and machine learning to allow agency managers to visualize the entire investigation while enabling investigators to piece together disparate bits of evidence to produce actionable intelligence to move investigations forward faster.

New solutions, like Cellebrite Pathfinder, are harnessing the power of AI and machine to produce actionable intelligence to move investigations forward faster. (Credit: Cellebrite)

Add to this the fact that budgets are tight (agencies are being asked to do more with less). Then top it off with the challenges brought on by the current pandemic:

  • Investigators being redeployed to fill the dwindling ranks of frontline personnel who have fallen victim to COVID-19
  • More officers being asked to work remotely, compounding the access to data to drive cases
  • Skillsets degrading as training programs are scuttled

The result has been an overall slowing of case resolutions for crimes against children at the very moment when the forced closure of schools and the rapid rise in virtual learning has put more children on the Internet (and at risk of being exploited by sexual predators) than ever before.

Law enforcement cannot lose its edge in the fight against these criminals. This is why training and staying abreast of the latest technologies is more important now than ever—particularly where ICAC units are concerned.

“Because of that uncertainty [caused by the defunding threat], we’re not seeing any reduction in the amount of work. In fact, it’s increasing. So the load on the folks here is 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 [technology and training] that will meet those needs.”

No one sees this more clearly than Captain Michael Edwards, who is head of the High-Risk Victims Section and Statewide Commander for the Washington State ICAC Task Force.

Why ICAC Training is Critical

In a recent interview, Captain Edwards laid out some of the challenges his unit is facing and why training is such a necessary part of keeping ICAC teams current.

Rescuing children and prosecuting sexual predators are the primary goals for Captain Michael Edwards, Statewide Commander for the Washington State ICAC Task Force. (Credit: Auburn-reporter)

Defunding threats: Recent calls to “defund the police” have had a direct impact on his department. “You can only do this work for so long,” Captain Edward said, “so we will 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.” Training programs necessary to keep existing staff current and get new members up to speed are in the crosshairs.

Increased caseloads: “Because of that uncertainty [caused by the defunding threat], we’re not seeing any reduction in the amount of work,” Captain Edwards said. “In fact, it’s increasing. So the load on the folks here is 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 [technology and training] that will meet those needs.” Training is critical to ensuring efficiencies remain high to deal with ever-increasing caseloads.

Technology advances: Rapid advances in technology make “keeping up” a problem for current investigators, and the people Captain Edwards is looking to hire may not have the skillsets initially to help lighten the load. “Being able to identify technologies and training that will work, and appeal to a very diverse group is tough,” he said.

Skill retention: “There is a short shelf life of retention if you’re not actively using those tools on a regular, on-going basis, so it’s a perishable skill in many cases. Because of the nature of law enforcement, you may be in patrol for several years, so it’s less likely that you’re going to be utilizing those tools to a significant degree to maintain your proficiency.”

Like remaining firearms proficient or keeping high-speed driving skills razor-sharp, digital training takes constant refreshing.

Hiring challenges: Training is also a consideration when Captain Edwards evaluates potential candidates for his team, knowing that most will require skill-building. “When we look at bringing somebody into this particular assignment, it’s all based on aptitude and capacity for the individual. So we’ll evaluate them for that, and train them up independently and individually once they get the assignment here.”

The Many Shades of Training

Fortunately, there are a variety of training options available, not just for those who process evidence but for detectives, forensics lab technicians, analysts, and prosecutors as well. 

Formal programs: As the world leader in digital intelligence technology, Cellebrite prides itself on having equally robust training programs that can be customized to meet the needs of departments and individuals alike. Cellebrite’s Learning Center offers three options:

Live online: These classes allow participants to interact with their instructors and peers in a real-time virtual classroom setting delivered right to the student’s computer via Cellebrite’s online learning portal.

On-demand: Here students can learn at their own pace and convenience with affordable anytime, anywhere access to training from their personal computer.

Instructor-led classes: Students meet with their instructor and peers in-person in a traditional, interactive classroom setting at a Cellebrite training location.

Cellebrite Academy can be supported in 11 different languages and is delivered in a variety of formats including live online and on-demand. (Credit: Cellebrite)

Curriculums are developed by industry experts and classes are taught by the leading authorities in the Digital Intelligence field, with many classes leading to a variety of certifications that students can build on.

Blogs and webinars: Cellebrite’s experts also host ongoing blogs and webinars that are designed to help investigators, examiners, and analysts keep abreast of the latest technological advancements—broken down into digestible bites. A growing number are also accompanied by videos that make learning easy using real-case simulations.

“And sure enough, it [what I learned in the class] worked. So, we were able to get the key, collect the data and get the evidence.”

Conferences: Seven years ago Captain Edwards saw the need to create an ongoing educational program that would not only benefit his own team but help ICAC investigators all over the world. He enlisted Detective Ian Polhemus from his team to put the program together and the Northwest Regional ICAC Conference was born.

The ICAC Conference expands the efforts and knowledge base of law enforcement investigators, digital forensic examiners, and prosecutors by providing highly specialized training focused on investigating and prosecuting technology-facilitated crimes against children. (Credit: ICAC)

Now in its 7th year, the program has grown from 50 participants in year one to hundreds of ICAC professionals from all over the world who now make it a point to attend each year. The five-day event, normally held on the Microsoft campus, provides a forum for investigators, prosecutors, forensic examiners, industry professionals, and academics to come together to learn, collaborate, and share their knowledge of digital crime investigations involving child sexual exploitation.

Due to the pandemic, this year’s event was completely virtual, but Detective Polhemus and his team pulled off another successful event that included 571 attendees representing 43 US states and eight foreign countries. Participants enjoyed 42 sessions over two days taught by some of the leading experts in the field.

Detective Polhemus also added that one of the reasons their conference is so successful is because of the partnerships with private enterprises like Cellebrite that provide training and financial resources that internal budgets simply can’t cover.

Other resources: Finally there are a variety of online resources for skill-building including customer stories, case studies, white papers, podcasts, and e-books to tap into.

A Case for Training

When asked if he could recall a Cellebrite training class that had an immediate impact on a case, Detective Randy Kyburz, another member of Seattle PD’s ICAC team, was quick to point to an example when he attended a National White Collar Crime Center class on WinFE (Windows Forensic Environment) and used what he learned in the class the very next day to help a colleague crack a case.

“One of the things, just a small portion of the class, was about bypassing BitLocker, or obtaining the BitLocker keys, using WinFE and a script.

“I came back to the office, and literally the next day, my coworker was working a case where he had a BitLocked thing [device] and he couldn’t get in.

“I was like, ‘Hey, let’s give this a try.’ And sure enough, it [what I learned in the class] worked. So, we were able to get the key, he was able to collect the data and get the evidence.”

Having trained personnel that can access evidence quickly can make the difference between taking a predator off the street or leaving them to damage more lives. When weighing the cost of training versus the cost of saving even one child from being sexually exploited, the choice is clear. Training saves lives. And that’s an investment all of us need to fight for.

Read Part 1: The Power Of A Calling: Seattle PD ICAC Unit Puts Digital Intelligence To Work To Stop Crimes Against Children

Part 2: A Day In The Life With Seattle PD’s ICAC Unit – Saving One Child at a Time