For The National Child Protection Task Force, Technology Holds The Key

March 10, 2021

By Kevin Metcalf

The community of people that works on child protection is a wonderfully disparate one. There are people in law enforcement, for instance, here in the United States and elsewhere, who have willingly dedicated themselves to seeing the worst of humanity to keep the most vulnerable amongst us safe. There are others in federal, state, local and tribal agencies focused on putting in place policies and systems to give kids a chance at a better future and a safe haven for now. NGOs work to prevent human trafficking or find missing and exploited children, volunteers who give endless hours to kids who will never know what they do. Private sector technologists work with all of us to find new-age solutions to old-world crime; all because there is a need to fill this gap.

We may look different, speak different languages, and have different ways of approaching the issue. Still, we are all bound by a common mission: We imagine a world where children wake up and experience childhood, feel safe wherever they are, and end each day looking forward to tomorrow. We envision a safer world for our children and their children, one where they can wake up without worrying about being beaten, bullied, brutalized, or betrayed in the worst of ways.

Many of us spend each day wondering how we can accomplish this better and faster because it isn’t just essential to save lives; it’s also vital to make sure they’re lived well. Children matter, but so does childhood, and these children can never get that back.

Why Do We Do What We Do?

Let me start at the beginning. It is my great honor and privilege to help lead one such dedicated band of warriors, the hundred-plus men and women who volunteer and partner with the National Child Protection Task Force. The NCPTF exists because our children go missing every day, they get trafficked every day, and they get physically and emotionally abused, groomed, sexually exploited, and sold every day.

And it isn’t getting better, not as yet, not with the pandemic and everyone being virtual. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) reported 21.75 million reports to their CyberTipline in 2020, up from about 17 million. The year 2020 saw 37,872 reports of online enticement, compared to 19,174 in 2019.

The CyberTipline, for anyone unaware, is the U.S.’s centralized reporting system for when children are exploited online. Reports made to them range from suspected online enticement for sexual acts, child sex trafficking, and child pornography to extra-familial child sexual molestation, child sex tourism, unsolicited obscene materials sent to a child, and misleading domain names, words, or digital images on the internet. The 21.75 million reports of child sexual exploitation made to the CyberTipline in 2020 included 65.4 million images, videos, and other files. These materials contained suspected child sexual abuse material (CSAM) and other related content. It is a staggering number and a horrific one for our society.

The first reason NCPTF exists is the obvious one. The second reason is more complicated. The short story is that we were needed: There simply wasn’t anyone else out there like what we believed we could be; an organization that could bring together the experience of investigators, the mental skills of analysts trained to look for patterns, and the cutting-edge tools offered by private sector organizations, minus the red tape that often bogs down traditional law enforcement or prosecutorial operations; all motivated to protect our children. At the same time, we demonstrate how to do this more effectively and efficiently so that the rights and privacy of others are protected; we use the least invasive methods possible and ensure protections are set up at each step.

With law enforcement, and I say this as a former federal agent and current prosecutor, you tend to get stuck in these often-self-imposed mental silos — that there’s only one way to do something, only one option to pick, or only one path to take to solve a case. I decided things needed to change, and I had to make it happen. So, four years ago, I began volunteering my own time and using my own money to help people trying to find missing and exploited children. I started putting this together to share my experience; it began as simply that.

At that point, though, none of us had any tools to speak of to track down children that were missing or the people they were communicating with online. We couldn’t afford them personally, and our agencies wouldn’t buy them because, in their view, anything worth buying was always too new and too expensive. However, soon after I began helping other agencies, we managed to recover a 16-year-old girl who was groomed by a sexual predator she met online. He picked her up and took her several states away. We later heard about other dark things in his past; luckily, she survived to fight another day. That incident, it appeared, was a catalyst to much more.

Soon after, we had an AMBER Alert here, in my home state of Arkansas. The investigator we had just helped, located far from me, called to say, “you have an AMBER Alert; what do you need and how can I help?” He jumped on that investigation, and it snowballed from there. Every time we help a law enforcement agency, they want to volunteer with us and help someone else. It makes sense; we’re all stronger together.

The Founding, And A Mission

Increasingly, I was asked to speak at national conferences like the National Cyber Crime Conference in Boston, where I met Kevin Branzetti, and things just clicked. We started talking about approaching cases involving missing, exploited, and trafficked children more effectively, making optimum use of scarce resources, human and otherwise, and harnessing technology’s power to help us fight this war. Every time we talked, there was more we knew we had to do.

Kevin Branzetti and I founded the NCPTF with Robert Liscouski. These are two amazing men who, like me, are passionate about our mission to protect children. We believed that technology held the key to solving the most challenging problems in this shadowy world we all were part of. Robert Liscouski was the United States’ first Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection when the Department of Homeland Security was founded in 2003, in the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks. Among other things, he was responsible for was the design, development, implementation, and oversight of the Office of Infrastructure, which included the National Cyber Security Division — the country’s first coordinated civilian effort to have the U.S. Government and the private sector combine forces to defend the nation’s cyberspace.

Kevin Branzetti is the Director of Intelligence at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, assigned to oversee terrorism and cybercrime-related investigations. He had previously retired from the NYPD in 2015 after 22 years of service, the last 12 of which he spent at the Intelligence Bureau, supervising terrorism investigations and counterterrorism programs. In the final six years in Intel, he was the commanding officer of the Cyber Intelligence Unit.

As for me, I’m a former federal agent turned prosecutor with a particular affinity for anything related to the criminal use of computers and mobile devices. That fascination eventually led to my developing a system for working with cellphone-related data in criminal cases, which, in turn, was developed into a mobile device foundational course that focuses on the integration of legally derived information with open-source intelligence (OSINT).  

It just started blowing up from that first meeting. We have law enforcement volunteers from multiple countries and technology partners and volunteers from all over — including the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, Italy, and France. The idea behind this was to find a way to bring together resources that law enforcement wouldn’t otherwise have, and slowly but surely, we’re doing that.  

But We’re Also Doing Things A Little Differently

What does that mean? First, we decided to focus on runaways, who may often be a low priority for investigators because they’ve chosen to run away instead of being “taken.” And second, we decided to take the battle to child predators by fighting them on their own turf with technology. Child predators are highly adept at leveraging technology to prey on their victims, and we cannot protect our children unless we leverage technology as well. Technology gives us more power to find those who are missing in real-time. We provide law enforcement, especially smaller agencies, with a tech-savvy team of experienced investigators, prosecutors, and technology professionals ready to immediately assist with child abduction, exploitation, and trafficking cases.

Many of the kids who run away may run into danger but are also running away from danger. Take Barbara, our Director of Survivor Advocacy; her mother trafficked her from the age of 8. There is a real subset of parents, caregivers, foster homes, and group homes who feature among the people doing the trafficking or exploiting.

But it could also be this other subset where kids have been groomed online to run away by complete strangers. According to NCMEC, 98% of reported offenders were seemingly unknown to the child offline. Why are they receptive to these strangers? Because they’re running away from physical abuse, they’re running away from sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or something similar. You also have kids who just want to go away — it’s an adventure, and they think it’s going to be better. So, they are groomed, and they run away. However, because they choose to run away, it moves them to the lowest of investigative priorities.

In one of the earlier cases, a girl was being groomed, and she eventually ran away. We managed to get involved, and the information we started accumulating told us traffickers had picked her up. I identified more than a thousand potential victims that this group had been communicating with, and they weren’t just here in the United States; they were children from all over the world. The traffickers would offer, “We can help you with your passport,” or “We can get you an airline ticket” or something, equally enticing, getting children to leave home of their own volition before setting them up to be thoroughly exploited.

According to a November 2019 report called The Invisible Faces of Runaway and Homeless Youth — from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs — “On a single night in 2018, 4,093 children under the age of 18 were counted as homeless because they were not part of a family with children or not under the care of a parent or guardian, according to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The National Runaway Safeline reports that between 1.6 million and 2.8 million youth run away each year.”

According to NCMEC, in 2019, of the 29,000 missing child cases reported to them, 91% were for endangered runaways, and 77% of these endangered runaways were between 15-17 years old.

The National Runaway Safeline also shared a few statistics on why children ran away:

  • 47% experienced conflicts with parents or guardians at home.
  • 34% of runaways experienced sexual abuse at home (80% of those were girls). 
  • 43% of teens reported physical abuse as one of the main reasons they left home. 

We do what we do because each of these children, desperate, deprived, lonely, or depressed, matters to us. Each NCPTF member, partner, or volunteer is united in a belief that we have a responsibility to make society a better place for everyone, especially our most vulnerable members. Finally, we also want to make sure the system doesn’t hold justice up. Every hour wasted is an hour some child is brutalized and raped. We have to change that.

Author Bio: Kevin Metcalf is a former federal agent turned prosecutor and a co-founder of the National Child Protection Task Force, which brings together recognized experts in fields such as strategic legal applications, OSINT, cellular mapping and analysis, dark web investigations, and cryptocurrency to aid law enforcement agencies everywhere. Kevin has assisted with the recovery of numerous missing and exploited children and the identification and apprehension of sexual predators in multiple states.

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