New technology analyzes online photos to identify child predators and their victims
"Photo DNA" technology lets computers review images faster than ever before
Project VIC is now being used by Interpol, Europol and agencies in 35 countries
In a bathroom, the predator has placed a child on the counter to photograph his evil acts.
In the background of the photo, which was posted online, are products including prescription medication.
But zooming in on that pill bottle makes the details unreadable.
In a small, dark lab Jim Cole, special agent and supervisor of Victim Identification at the Homeland Security Investigations Cyber Crimes Center gets to work using the latest technology available.
Using technology to identify abusers
“Utilizing some technology that hadn’t even been released to the public yet we were able to take a look at the bottle and reverse out some of the motion blur,” Cole said.
They can now see the offender’s first name “Stephen,” the first two letters of the last name and the first three digits on the prescription order.
With that he applies to the pharmacy for the customer details of every person who fits that criteria. It narrows the list down to a man named “Stephen Keating.”
But that’s not all. The offender’s fingers are also in the picture and incredibly this crack team manages to pull the fingerprints from the image.
“That was the first time we were able to do that,” Cole said.
No victim left behind
Cole co-founded Project VIC: their aim is that no victim is be left behind.
“We strive to find these children as quick as possible,” Cole said. “The longer it takes us the longer that child is in harm’s way.”
It’s not an easy task when Cole says they are seeing 500,000 images a week: that’s over 25 million a year.
The Keating case ran for about three weeks and in the past it could have taken months – or worse, the image may never have been uncovered at all.
Using technology known as “Photo DNA” their computers can wade through the hundreds of thousands of photos fast, categorizing the ones they’ve already seen to allow his team to focus on the new victims.
“What used to take us nine months now takes us a month,” said Cole.
“It helps us review video on a scale of about 100 times faster than previously,” he added. “It’s been a complete game-changer for law enforcement and we get that feedback from the field all the time.”
Easing psychological burden
The efficiency not only saves time, it helps ease the psychological burden on investigators.
“We definitely see a mental health benefit because the nature of our offenders is they are trading material we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of times in addition to the new material,” Cole said.
The technology helped investigators find a seemingly harmless photo of a known offender with her victim on vacation. The image showed the pair holding fish at a campsite.
The fish were isolated from the image and sent to Cornell University, which provided investigators with a geographical area where those fish can be caught. The campsite image, with the child and perpetrator removed, was sent to every single campsite advertiser in that location. Upon tracking down the actual campsite they found the same photo posted in the reception room.
“Within four hours we had her identified,” Cole said.
The child was rescued and the woman is now serving a 25-year sentence.
On another image of an offender with a young girl, the Project VIC team noticed a company logo on the man’s sweatshirt but they couldn’t decipher what was written. Some cutting edge technology helped make the logo almost completely readable. An online search for names that might match the letters led investigators to a plumbing business. The offender, a former employee, was tracked down and four victims were rescued.
The number of images like these being shared online is on the rise.
Last year the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) received 4.4 million reports to its CyberTipline. That’s a nearly 800% increase in reporting since 2013.
Tip-offs come from the public, and also companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter, who are mandated by U.S. regulations to report any such images.
According to Lindsay Olson, director of the Exploited Child Division at NCMEC, 94% of the cases last year were outside the United States.
“The CyberTipline receives reports of child porn, online enticement of children for sexual acts, online sex trafficking, child molestation; any type of child exploitation can be reported to the cyber tip line,” said Olson. “We make reports available to law enforcement in about 100 countries and we also work with Europol and Interpol.”
Swedish based company Griffeye was one of the founding partners of Project VIC. Director Johann Hofmann says it donates its software to be used in child exploitation cases.
“As more and more crime is becoming more and more digital as data is being distributed online,” he said. “You see a new type of police officer that is behind a computer screen and with the right tools they can crack these cases.”
The Internet has no borders so law enforcement agencies need to overcome traditional geographic boundaries to work together.
Project VIC is now being used by Interpol, Europol and agencies in 35 countries including the United Kingdom and Canada, and it’s about to be rolled out in Australia.
In the United States the results speak for themselves.
“We’ve been absolutely floored by the success we’ve seen with Project VIC,” said Cole. “Going back a few years we were seeing victims in the low hundreds and in this past year we’ve rescued over 1,000 victims just in HSI (Homeland Security Investigations – a division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)). alone and we’ve seen similar results in other agencies as well.”