WACH Investigation: Child Exploitation on the Internet

Tyler Ryan takes a three part look at the problem of child exploitation on the Internet

COLUMBIA (WACH)â??This generation is considered â??nativeâ?? to the world of the Internet, pod casting, and smartphones, which is somewhat of a double edged sword. On one hand, they arenâ??t behind the learning curve in the integration of all the conveniences that have becoming commonplace over the last decade, but it also means that in being â??out there,â?? they are more exposed to potential people trying to do them harm. In addition, because they have been surrounded by cell phones, apps, tablets, and more, they feel they are savvy and understand the potential risks that lurk on the other end of the computer or smartphone.

The later would be incorrect, at least to state and federal internet crime investigators. Special Agent in Charge for Homeland Security in the Southeast calls the problem of child exploitation â??an epidemicâ?? that many people donâ??t even know exists.

Online predators often engage in several different â??groomingâ?? behaviors, slowly earning the trust of the unsuspecting child. These techniques can include

· Listening to the problems of the child

· Pretending to be a peer

· Chatting on social networks, chat rooms, or through using apps such as Snapchat and Kik.

· They slowly push the envelope of trust, often eventually introducing sexual content into conversations

This grooming happens over time, in such a manner that the child donâ??t realize there are danger signs until it is too late.

Although there are still a number of â??travelerâ?? cases, where a meeting actually occurs between a child and predator, very often the abuse is cyber in nature, where the child is talked into, and sometimes extorted into providing explicit images, videos, and conversation that is then collected and shared with other like-minded predators.

According to Marah Strickland, a cybercrime educator at the South Carolina Attorney Generalâ??s Office, the growth of the Internet also brings a seemingly endless list of ways predators can come in contact with children online. She says that staying up to date and communicating with children can provide another buffer layer between families and bad guys.

Strickland says that Kik and Snapchat are two examples of apps kids can quickly find danger on. Both apps allow a user to send an image or message, which is only viewable for a few seconds and then erases. The problem, of course, like with any computer file, is that it never really deletes. In other words, once itâ??s out there, itâ??s out thereâ?¦forever.

Along with the growing number apps and websites that could be used by preditors for further exploitation, there are others that are being launched with the mission of help to protect children and assist parents. Zabra was created after itâ??s founder, Paul Adkison daughter was the recipitent of a sexually explicit text message. Zabra monitors a childâ??s activity on social networks sites, and provides information and education for both the parents and the child. Adkison says that the site empowers children so that they can take an active role in their own safety while surfing.

There are several that are specificly designed to help parents and children stay safer. Zabra is

In the war on the exploitation of children are investigators and prosecutors on the local, state, and federal level.

Starting in the mid nineteen nineties, cybercrime task forces, made up of local, state, and federal investigators began to specifically deal with the issue of exploitation of children on the web. South Carolina was on the cutting edge of such a unit, with its Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force one of the first in the country. Similar units now exist in all fifty states.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson works closely with Attorneyâ??s Generals from across the country to help investigate and prosecute instances of child pornography and other exploitation of children on the web.

ICAC Unit Commander Chip Payne says that the South Carolina ICAC team is made up of about 50 investigators from local police and sheriffâ??s departments from around the state.

The Attorney Generalâ??s ICAC team also includes special prosecutors who focus on the criminal cases as they go to trial and ultimately face conviction. In that prosecution process, however, has its challenges including the learning curve of some jurors who may not fully understand the very technology that surrounds the case. Assistant Attorney General Bethany Miles also points out that in South Carolina; the definition of pornographic pictures is somewhat unclear, and different than most other states. Miles says that the mere image of a child in a â??provocativeâ?? position doesnâ??t necessarily meet the standard of pornography in the State.

Representative Ralph Kennedy has sponsored a bill, H3959 that will provide a clear definition, and give investigators another tool to bring suspects to justice. This week, the bill passed a senate committee, and goes to the full senate for a vote.

Assistant Deputy Attorney General Kyle Senn says that generally, however, the cases that are brought forward are very well put together by investigators, and suspects often plea before they have to face a public trial.

If a parent finds questionable material, pictures, conversations, or other content on a childâ??s computer or device, Special Investigator Lucinda McKellar says to bring the entire device to law enforcement, rather than making a copy, and â??creating moreâ?? material.

Although the problem is a world-wide problem, Special Agent in Charge Nicholson says â??We look for the worst of the worst, and they should not feel safe. We are hunting them every day.â??

Here are some links related to the exploitation of children:

Homeland Security / ICE

SC Attorney Generalâ??s ICAC Unit

Tips from Microsoft

US Computer Readiness Team