Inside ALERT’s Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) Unit office in Calgary, there’s a whiteboard on which investigators write down the status of files they’re working on. Between April and June 2017, though, as ICE was carrying out Operation Icebreaker, that whiteboard was fuller than usual.
“We were taking photos [of the whiteboard] because there were just so many search warrants on there,” says Det. Sean Spence, one of the members who spearheaded Operation Icebreaker. “It was quite something to look at.”
Operation Icebreaker consisted of 25 search warrants being carried out in those three months, and resulted in 56 charges being laid against 16 men from across southern Alberta.
The operation started as a means to address the large file load being managed by ICE investigators in Calgary. The tempo of search warrants executed increased over the course of the project to address high-priority files that could be dealt with in an efficient, expedient manner. “That kind of output we had back then was all hands on deck,” Spence says, noting that the camaraderie in the office allowed them to pull together to reach a common goal.
Some of the files given the highest priority did not just involve the transfer of digital files. In addition to the large number of arrests, the unit was able to identify underage victims of online luring and prevent potential abuse.
“Identifying victims is always our priority,” Spence says, adding that, in most instances, the victims in these crimes remain unidentified.
From the 25 warrants, 510 electronic devices and other exhibits were seized, giving ICE forensic technicians more than 28 terabytes of data to sift through to identify child exploitation images and videos.
“[Their work] is incredible. The techs don’t get nearly enough credit,” Spence says. While the volume of work can sometimes be daunting, the information that the technicians provide is a valuable tool in helping to uncover the truth. They are an essential part of ICE’s operations.
When a media conference was held in July to announce the results of Operation Icebreaker, it garnered lots of media attention, both from Calgary outlets and across Canada. “I wasn’t really expecting much; I didn’t think it was newsworthy because it’s just what we do every day,” Spence says.
The bulk of the office’s work takes place in Calgary, but Spence says there’s plenty of work to do in rural areas – not only catching predators, but also advising local police and educating them about charges that can be laid related to online communications.
Looking back on Operation Icebreaker, Spence says there were a few lessons that the team learned that will help in future investigations, the biggest being time management. “We need to manage between each investigator’s needs, each investigator’s triaged files, what they deem as a priority, and the tech resources. After Icebreaker, we’ve become a lot more cohesive and aware of each other’s needs.”
But a successful operation like this also motivates the investigators to keep going – to keep crossing files off that whiteboard.
“You feel like you’re giving the public a service,” Spence says. “We’re in our little office here and you lose touch with society sometimes, and the rest of the policing world. But when you get out there and start telling your story and how many files you do, their eyes are opened a bit. And you realize there’s a lot more work to do.”