Stepping Out of the Shadows: Leveraging the Community to Stop the Sexual Exploitation of Minors

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Elisabeth Yerkes

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The online transmission of child pornography and other cyber sexual crimes has exploded in recent years, and law enforcement does not have the resources to stop it. The volume of child pornography reported to law enforcement is staggering. In 2019, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) received approximately 16.9 million reports comprising 69.1 million images, videos, and files.[1] The number of images has exceeded law enforcement’s current capacity to review and investigate such cases.

Investigations into online child sexual abuse are extremely complex and require a great deal of time and resources to analyze a single image.[2] These intricate investigations, coupled with high volume and too few specialists to investigate, create tremendous backlogs of evidence needing to be reviewed.[3] Law enforcement officers who investigate online child sexual abuse materials note that their main challenges are the quantity of evidence needing to be examined and the lack of funding and staffing needed to accomplish this task.[4]

Many law enforcement agencies already rely on citizens to assist in accomplishing their missions through various means including crowdsourcing and volunteering. While crowdsourcing serves as a way to develop leads, volunteers with police agencies enhance police functions to deter and solve crimes while simultaneously compensating for limited resources. One of the most recognized reasons agencies seek volunteers is a lack of fiscal or other resources required to accomplish the goals of the agency and meet the needs of the community.[5]

Using policy analysis, this thesis analyzed the advantages and disadvantages of using citizen volunteers to help investigate child sexual abuse material. To do so, this thesis demonstrated ways citizens assist law enforcement through formal volunteer programs and crowdsourcing as well as highlighting the greatest challenges cited by law enforcement in CSAM investigations which included high volume of images with insufficient resources or personnel to fully investigate the images. From the evidence presented, five criteria of efficiency, opportunity to gain intelligence, cost, implementation, and congressional support were established to assist in comparing three policy alternatives: maintaining the status quo, creating a national crowdsourcing model, and establishing a national volunteer program. The five criteria were weighed, reviewed, analyzed, and scored for each policy option.

After assessing potential alternatives through the evaluative criteria, each policy option was ranked, revealing establishment of a national volunteer program to combat CSAM as the most promising policy to assist law enforcement. A national program ensures all law enforcement agencies the ability to use the services of skilled volunteers regardless of their location and resources. Members of the public are seeking ways to assist law enforcement to combat CSAM by dedicating their time, resources and skills. A national volunteer program would serve the dual purpose of helping law enforcement fill gaps in investigative needs while creating meaningful opportunities for civilians to contribute to the fight against child sexual exploitation.

[1] “About NCMEC”, National Center For Missing and Exploited Children, accessed April 13, 2020, https://www.missingkids.org/footer/media/keyfacts.

[2] Ben Hitchcock, Nhien-An Le-Khac, and Mark Scanlon, “Tiered Forensic Methodology Model for Digital Field Triage by Non-Digital Evidence Specialists,” Digital Investigation, DFRWS Europe, 16 (2016): S75–85, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.diin.2016.01.010; and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking, the Importation of Goods Produced with Forced Labor, and Child Sexual Exploitation (Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security, 2020), 18, https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/20_0115_plcy_human-trafficking-forced-labor-child-exploit-strategy.pdf.

[3] Hitchcock, Le-Khac, and Scanlon, “Tiered Forensic Methodology,” 1.

[4] Sean E. Goodison, Robert C. Davis, and Brian A. Jackson, Digital Evidence and the U.S. Criminal Justice System: Identifying Technology and Other Needs to More Effectively Acquire and Utilize Digital Evidence (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2015), 1, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR890.html.

[5] Ross Wolf, Stephen T. Holmes, and Carol Jones, “Utilization and Satisfaction of Volunteer Law Enforcement Officers in the Office of the American Sheriff: An Exploratory Nationwide Study,” Police Practice and Research 17, no. 5 (2016): 451, https://doi.org/10.1080/15614263.2015.1031750.

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