Right now, the nonprofit Mainely Girls is trying to raise $100,000 to buy a new mobile forensic van for the Maine State Police Computer Crimes Unit, which investigates child pornography cases.
This police unit pursues one to four child exploitation targets per week and will likely make 70 to 80 arrests this year. To do its work, it uses two retrofitted vans to preview electronic devices outside homes of suspected offenders. The previewing process allows police to analyze information on devices — subject to the same legal requirements as other crime-scene evidence — to identify which laptops or iPads are downloading or sharing pornographic material of children, so they can collect them as evidence and pinpoint perpetrators.
A new van would pack more electrical power, so equipment doesn’t fail, and it would let investigators search faster. It would also give them room to conduct interviews and do polygraph tests on site, to determine whether the offender is not just watching child pornography but possibly participating in the direct abuse of children. That’s an important step — because child pornography investigations often turn up offenses in which someone has had direct abusive contact with children.
In comparison with the vast, complicated, global problem of child exploitation, purchasing a van for the unit presents one real concrete goal that can be accomplished by concerned Maine residents. The tricky questions remain. How can Maine and the United States crack down on a crime that has exploded as more people have gained Internet access, file sharing technology has improved, and computer memory capacity has grown?
Police across the country are doing more each year to find and arrest those who possess or trade child pornography. (A small minority sell it.) State and local law enforcement agencies reported nearly 10,500 computer forensic examinations for child exploitation investigations in 2007. In 2009, that total nearly doubled to 19,269, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Of course, the number of potential cases is undoubtedly far greater; the Maine computer crimes unit gets more referrals for child pornography cases than it can investigate.
As police nationally do more to advance their technological capabilities, improve efficiency, increase investigative capacity, collect data and update training for investigators and prosecutors, we would also urge them to incentivize local law enforcement to devise ways to better identify victims, so they may be rescued. Until the children are found, they may continue to be exploited. The amount of material makes it a difficult task, as the work must be done by human eyes.
The work is being done to an extent at the national level: The Federal Bureau of Investigation analyzes the audio in videos, looks at furniture, clothing or other items in photos to try to identify where images were taken, and ultimately tries to pinpoint details about the children so they may be rescued. And the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children serves as a central repository for information regarding images of sexually exploited children.
But state law enforcement agencies, like the computer crimes unit in Maine, can be an invaluable resource. Even though the Maine unit’s primary focus when it comes to child pornography is finding those who possess, distribute and make it, investigators have helped identify at least 26 child victims across the U.S. and in Canada. If Maine can do that work on the side, imagine what could be accomplished with a more concerted, collaborative effort at agencies across the U.S.
“My dream would be to set up a nonprofit where all we do would be: Find these kids,” said Lt. Glenn Lang, who leads Maine’s computer crimes unit.
He’s on to something. Last month, 17 veterans were sworn in as part of a one-year pilot program called Human Exploitation Rescue Operative Child Rescue Corps, or HERO Corps. Developed by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Department of Defense and National Association to Protect Children, the trained veterans — under the supervision of Homeland Security Investigations agents in different offices around the country — will conduct computer forensic exams to identify and rescue the victims depicted in child pornography.
It’s an example of one of the pieces of a much larger effort that will require the expertise of many agencies to tackle a crime that’s never victimless.