Fighting Fire With Fire

In the fight against child exploitation on the internet, offenders may think that technology gives them the upper hand. But investigators with ALERT’s Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) Unit have their own technological tools that help them be proactive and take the fight to perpetrators.

“We’ve had certain suspects who think they’re afforded some anonymity on the Internet. But as much as there’s technology they think they might be able to take advantage of, technology also allows us to be a lot more driven in terms of where to look for people and how to action those files,” said ICE Staff Sgt. Dominic Mayhew. “It’s as much of a tool for us as it is for them.”

While the bulk of ICE files begin with tips from social media platforms, service providers, and national and international agencies, Mayhew says investigators also have the technology to actively search out those who possess, access and distribute child sexual abuse material.

“We don’t have a problem making arrests. I don’t think there’s a single town in Alberta where we could not make an arrest,” he said.

The majority of ICE cases start as tips about files being uploaded or downloaded, but investigators know that, with a bit of digging, any one of those could turn into something far more serious, including luring or contact offences. Those files immediately go to the top of the pile, Mayhew said.

“Young children don’t have the experience, the brain development, to know necessarily that what is happening at that time is wrong or inappropriate. So when we see there’s an active attempt to engage with a child, that is our highest priority file.”

Child luring is defined in the Criminal Code of Canada as communicating via the Internet with minors for any one of a number of sexually exploitative purposes.

Mayhew said that offenders will use just about any software platform imaginable to try and make contact with children. “You used to be able to come home and, when the lights went on, you were safe in your house. Now we’ve moved into an era where children in their bedrooms, with a piece of technology, literally cannot be safe in their own homes.”

But the people behind the platforms running on those pieces of technology are also very co-operative in reporting violators to either the RCMP’s National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre or the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States, who then pass the information on to ICE.

“I think we’re all on the same page when it comes to child exploitation crimes,” Mayhew said. “Everybody takes it extremely seriously. We’re in an age of technology now where companies are stepping up and taking responsibility for content, whether it’s something that resides within their platform, or something crossing their platform.”

Meanwhile, Mayhew says that more victims are coming forward to report these types of crimes, helping to lessen the stigma around them. And that allows police not only to catch the perpetrators, but also to guide the victims and their families.

“That is where we want to make sure we’re doing our best work,” he said, “to make sure those children receive the best we can provide for them in terms of an investigation, but also offer them a path of hope of healing, and transition them onto the best resources that we can.”