How child porn investigators are shifting gears

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A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement victim identification program in northern Virginia is transforming investigations into child pornography and leading to an increased number of arrests.

By studying child pornography images and videos, ICE investigators identify leads in some of their unique elements, such as an unusual tree, the sound of a train whistle, the chirping of birds, the logo on a T-shirt — the metadata contained in photos and videos, including information that reveals time and location. The most useful clues are often found in mundane photos that have been uploaded by abusers seeking to prove that they have access to children.

Previous efforts to stem child pornography were focused on prosecuting its consumers. Law enforcement officials and advocates claimed that more enforcement tactics were required. Therefore, officials have directed their focus on identifying and rescuing the victims, an approach that is also netting an increasing number of offenders.

Since 2013, law enforcement agencies have identified at least 9,400 juvenile victims of online sexual exploitation, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In the preceding decade, there were approximately 5,000 such identifications, referred to by officials as “rescues” because the children are often removed from abusive environments.

Lindsey Olson of the nonprofit National Center said, “Law enforcement has really made a huge effort in this area.”

The Wall Street Journal reported, “The internet and the ‘dark web’—a portion of the internet that is only accessible with special software and is often used by criminals—are awash in child pornography, with abusers and viewers swapping videos and photographs as if they were baseball cards, law-enforcement officials say. Last year, the National Center reviewed more than 34 million images and videos depicting the sexual exploitation of children 17 and under. Its cyber tip line recorded more than 8 million abuse-related reports.”

Crimes involving child pornography are investigated by agents at ICE, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Postal Inspection Service, as well as state and local police.

The change in investigative techniques was inspired by ICE agent James Cole, a former policeman and U.S. Army intelligence officer, who realized that identifying the victims of child pornography had multiple benefits. When rescued, the children received badly needed psychological support, they were removed from hostile environments, and the offenders were often apprehended.

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