As published in Forbes on May 9, 2020
By Thomas Brewster, Forbes Staff
Gable roofed and guarded with neoclassical columns along the porch, the house in the small Kitsap Peninsula city of Poulsbo, Washington, looked like your archetypal American family home. Inside was a Navy man, who lived with his wife and child, and worked as an electrician at the nearby base.
But on April 15, that house, and the suspect’s family life, were about to be turned upside down. Outside that quaint-looking house were officers from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), ready to swoop in to seize all phones and computing equipment inside. According to a search warrant, some months previous, NCIS had been tipped off that, using the Cash App payment service (part of the $32 billion market cap startup Square), an account linked to the suspect had allegedly been used to purchase child pornography from another man accused of running a Tumblr page from which he advertised the sale of horrific content. (NCIS said no charges have been filed as the matter is still under investigation. The suspect, whose name Forbes has chosen to keep private due to the lack of an indictment, hadn’t responded to emails.)
The raid came at a time when online child exploitation complaints have exploded, hitting over 4 million in March. It’s a rise that’s been caused, in part, by the spike in children and adults using the web as they’re hunkered down at home as coronavirus lockdowns continue across the world.
The NCIS officers had all the data they needed to raid the suspect’s property, largely thanks to information provided by Square, which detailed his name and address. But they had something else to consider before they stormed in: the risk of COVID-19 contagion. So, as NCIS told Forbes, they entered wearing full-body Tyvek suits, gloves and N95 masks; the kinds of personal protective equipment (PPE) worn by frontline hospital staff dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. “In a lot of ways, it’s not vastly different from what you would normally see us wearing on a crime scene examination, just potentially a little more tailored to this specific health crisis,” says Greg Ford, NCIS executive assistant director for criminal investigations and operations.
An explosion in child exploitation reports
The risk of infection can’t be avoided by U.S. law enforcement officers dealing with the explosion in reports of online exploitation crimes. And it’s some explosion, one that’s getting bigger by the month.
John Shehan, vice president at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), tells Forbes his organization has received 4.2 million reports in April. That’s up 2 million from March 2020 and nearly 3 million from April 2019. NCMEC acts as a clearing house for child exploitation content; tech companies send all complaints of illegal material on their sites to NCMEC’s CyberTipline.
There are varying reasons for the huge spike. First, there are more children at home due to coronavirus shut downs using all kinds of social and gaming platforms, which means there are more opportunities for abusers to groom minors. “There’s just more instances for predators to take advantage of these opportunities, and we are aware of some discussions that have taken place in the dark net, where the predators themselves have been talking about what an amazing opportunity this is.”
Second, there are more adults at home and on the web to report child abuse material, often the same content that’s “viral,” adds Shehan. Some are also expressing their shock and horror at illegal content they find on the web by reposting it, which is not only illegal, it’s also re-victimizing those in the footage, he warns. Such images and videos are appearing on social media platforms like Instagram, while some Zoom bombing attacks, where videoconference chats are invaded by uninvited parties, have led to the spreading of illegal material. One of NCMEC’s own employees was on a video call where such a Zoom bomb landed, leading to an ongoing criminal investigation, Shehan said. “It was super close to home,” he added, recommending people should contact the tech provider about abusive content on their platform, rather than re-share the material.
Shehan and other police officers told Forbes that abusers and those making money from exploiting children are changing their models to fit with the new world order under COVID-19 lockdowns. “We’ve seen child traffickers who have started to evolve their business model,” Shehan added. “That model is normally face-to-face. With COVID, the customers aren’t necessarily trying to do face-to-face interactions as much.” He says those who’d normally meet children in person are now subscribing to videos and images of the trafficked children.
The disease is clearly on the minds of such criminals. In one case, a New Yorker allegedly organized to meet with a 14-year-old minor he was allegedly grooming over Snapchat, according to the Justice Department, saying that he wanted to meet the minor in April due to the COVID-19 outbreak. He was worried their meeting would be postponed up to a year because of coronavirus restrictions, according to the DOJ
Shielding officers from COVID-19 infection
For NCIS, officers haven’t had the same problems of accessing PPE that non-federal police departments like those in Chicago, New York and Detroit have reportedly had to contend with. The unit couldn’t share more detail on how it conducted the search on the Washington home, but did put together a photoshoot for Forbes, mocking up what investigators were wearing to crime scenes and property searches.
Ford says COVID-19 hasn’t caused any serious delays in investigations. It’s been able to pivot to interrogating suspects over the phone or videoconference tools like Skype, he adds, while it’s been able to share workload with other military criminal investigative organisations like those at the Air Force and the U.S. Army. The team is also keeping tabs on who, across its 190 bases in 40 countries, have been infected, though he declined to provide any numbers or information on testing.
But for some major local police departments, PPE was hard to come by, at least in the early stages. ”To be frank, it was not great in the beginning. We were short on equipment. We were short on availability, just like everybody else. Short on sanitizers, short on PPE. And it took us you know, quite frankly, a couple of weeks for us to really get to a point where now we have a system down,” says the recently departed Chicago Police Department communications director Anthony Guglielmi, who moved to the force in Fairfax, Virginia, at the end of April.
Testing, too, was an issue in Chicago. “It was very, very slow to roll out. And Chicago is not unique to any other city in the country. We had very limited numbers of tests… It has gotten better, but it is still not great,” Gugileilmi says. Around 375 Chicago police officers have tested COVID-19 positive and three have died, he says, noting that at the peak, 8% of the workforce has been out on medical leave.
It’s not just physical location operations that are providing more challenges in the time of COVID-19. Vital computer forensics work, a huge part of internet child exploitation investigations, is now fraught with the danger of coronavirus transmission. “Every item of evidence being seized is now potentially a biohazard,” notes former Indiana state police captain Chuck Cohen, who left the force in December but remains in contact with police as vice president of the National White Collar Crime Center.
“You go to do a booking, you’ve got to take all the property out of the pockets, everything out of the backpack. That’s all a biohazard,” Cohen says. “This means that [officers] are also facing the challenge finding ways to collect evidence such as latent fingerprints and DNA found on the surface of evidence in a way that is safe for investigators and forensic scientists on a large scale.”
In Chicago, many forensic labs are all but shut down, processing only high-priority cases like murders and shootings, says Guglielmi. All other evidence is being stockpiled in storage to be returned to when resource is available, he adds. Some child exploitation crimes may have to take less of a priority.
Then there are the issues you don’t think about, Cohen adds. Investigators sifting through child exploitation material while working from home have to make sure their families don’t see it, for instance. “The mantra for law enforcement is never work from home, don’t bring it home. And now all this stuff you’ve been told for 15 years, forget about that, do everything at home.”