Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking with Kevin Metcalf
Children go missing, exploited, and trafficked everyday. It takes investigators, prosecutors, and private sector technology specialists to help them. Misinformation and TV portrayals can impact our resources that are directed to help.
Today’s guest is Kevin Metcalf. Kevin is a former federal agent turned prosecutor and the founder of The National Child Protection Task Force which brings together recognized experts in the field such as strategic legal applications, open source intelligence, cellular mapping analysis, dark web investigations, and cryptocurrency to help law enforcement agencies everywhere. He has undergone training provided by the National Computer Forensics Institute, the National White Collar Crime Center, and the FBI Cellular Analysis Survey Team, among others. Kevin developed a system for working with cell phone related data in criminal cases that developed into a mobile device foundational course that focuses on the integration of legally-derived information with open source information. Kevin has also published a series of instructional books available on Amazon.
- [1:26] – Kevin shares his background and how starting the National Child Protection Task Force was not something he initially thought he’d do.
- [2:20] – As a single parent, Kevin left his job in law enforcement, went back to school, and became a prosecutor.
- [3:58] – As he was led into working in social media and cell phones, Kevin realized how often he was working on cases that had to do with children.
- [5:11] – Kevin describes the case that got him national attention and how it led to him working with experts that wanted to come together to help more kids.
- [7:01] – Chris notes the gap between law enforcement and the technology that is available. Kevin is trying to bridge that gap.
- [8:00] – How does Kevin deal with the “CSI Effect”?
- [9:57] – There is a lot of misinformation regarding human trafficking.
- [10:52] – It is very challenging to convict someone for human trafficking due to little information and the victim not being forthcoming with details out of fear.
- [12:19] – Most of the time they are able to convict for something else, like drugs or gun charges, which does at least get the person in jail without putting the victim through testifying again.
- [13:34] – There are a lot of psychological factors involved for victims even years afterwards.
- [14:55] – Kevin’s organization works with missing, exploited, and trafficked children. He explains the difference between exploitation and trafficking.
- [16:49] – Children who are missing and runaways are at higher risk of being exploited and trafficked.
- [17:51] – There is a huge problem with missing children investigation or lack thereof. Predators are aware of this and take advantage.
- [21:21] – There are so many problems with statistics that Kevin doesn’t know what questions to ask.
- [23:18] – Kevin feels that there are two categories for children, missing or not.
- [24:04] – Kevin lists some of the things that put children at risk, including parents trying to control everything.
- [27:35] – During the grooming process, predators are looking for the weaknesses in a parent-child relationship. Mental health issues also add another level of vulnerability.
- [31:10] – The NCPTF is composed of active duty law enforcement. Kevin explains following the rules of the jurisdiction they’re working in.
- [32:51] – Although there are some controversial tools used to investigate these cases, Kevin describes how to prevent breaches in privacy.
- [35:04] – “You have to understand the limitations of technology. If you don’t, you’re going to misuse it, screw up an investigation, and arrest the wrong person.”
- [36:19] – Kevin explains the algorithms used for facial recognition, especially using the face of a child.
- [38:43] – An investigator needs to follow up on every hit used with facial recognition.
- [39:59] – Kevin describes how the NCPTF hones their technology skills.
- [41:38] – Predators are using information willingly posted on social media to harm others.
- [42:51] – It is difficult to make politicians and policy makers understand how bad the situation is and what is needed to prosecute a predator.
- [45:00] – Newer privacy laws make it difficult to use technology to identify a human trafficker.
- [46:51] – Using these technological resources for minor infractions is a waste of time and money. They should be used for the major things.
- [49:27] – It is important to not tip predators off with what they are using to identify them. Sometimes photos and videos will allow investigators to determine their location.
- [51:14] – A lot of people don’t realize how easy it is to find their information.
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Can you just share with the audience a little bit about your background and what led you to start the National Child Protection Task Force?
Yes, I’ve actually had this discussion a lot here lately. It came to the point where if you’d asked me, probably seven or eight years ago, what I’d be doing now, this was not on the radar. I started off way back in 1988 going through basic training in the army. Since then, I’ve been in one uniform or another. I’ve worked for state and local law enforcement. I’ve also worked in federal law enforcement work in counterterrorism.
I think it was 2006—I’m losing track of time now—I became a full-time single—I was the only parent. The girls’ mom died many years ago. I had the girls by myself since they were two and five. At the time, I was in London, bombs were going off over there. It was Thanksgiving night. My overnight babysitter called and said, “I can’t be there tonight.” Being in London as a single, only parent and your kids are with overnight babysitters, and luckily, we have some amazing neighbors that would always step up and they took care of my girls. That was it. I had to leave and do something else.
I came back, went to law school, and became a prosecuting attorney. I’ve been doing that for about 10 years. As an investigator, we’re very much trained to look in data silos. You’ve got to know about DNA. You’ve got to know about fingerprints. You’ve got to know how all that stuff works. Cell phones were unknown at that point, pretty much—cell site, location information, social media, and any electronic evidence, that really wasn’t being done much.
Here I am, the new guy. After 20-something years of law enforcement at that point, I’m the new guy. I looked for somewhere where I could just really make a difference. That ended up being social media, cell phones, computers, and that kind of stuff.
I started working in that and looking for training. I went through the FBI’s cast training, which is their cell site, location guys. Those guys are phenomenal. I went to the Secret Service National Computer Training Center out East. I went there three times to learn a lot about forensics, social media, and things like that. The real thing that clicked with me was I’m working with cell phones. I’m working with social media. That naturally led me into a lot of cases involving children and child predators.
I started putting these cases—I’ve had many, many jury trials that have involved social media and cell phones. As a prosecutor, you have to think about the difference between an investigator and a prosecutor. As a prosecutor, I’ve got 12 people from the community sitting there, varying levels of interest, varying levels of expertise, and usage of technology.
I had to figure out how to explain how this cell site location information connects with this witness statement and connects with this forensic report off of this thing—with Facebook, with Google, with you name it. After I did a few of those, it really clicked. It’s like, “Why are we not doing this on the front end during investigations?” All this stuff fits together. Yet law enforcement still treats everything as an individual silo. As a prosecutor, I’ve got to put it all together.
That investigative experience plus prosecutorial experience really led me to go back and help on investigations. As I did that a few years ago, I helped recover some teenage kids that were taken by online sexual predators. In each case, there were federal agencies involved, all these other agencies involved. Within hours, usually, of me getting in and saying, “You need to ask for this information, include this language on the search warrant,” we were able to recover those kids within hours or at least a day. That got me national attention at the National Cybercrime Conference and in other great conferences just outside of Boston every year.
Chris Kelly runs that through the Massachusetts AG’s office, and he does a phenomenal job. They have experts from all over in cybercrimes. I was speaking there about what I was doing. I met Kevin Branzetti and this thing started snowballing. We had more experts, some coming and saying, “I like what you’re doing; I want to be a part of it.” That was, I think, back in 2018 when this all started.
Now we have a nonprofit that is made up of active-duty law enforcement. We have active-duty military, the private sector, technology professionals, engineers, and people like that. All of us come together and brainstorm. We look at problems. We ask questions with the technology people.
We’ll say, “We’re seeing this, this is the data we’re seeing, what can we do with that? What are we not asking for, and what do we not know?” I think that has been the big thing that has come together and has made a big difference.
When I think of IT, programming, online, internet stuff, emerging technologies, public policy, and politicians, there’s a pretty big gap in emerging technology and where law enforcement, politics, and stuff like that are. We need to see someone really trying to bridge that gap to make sure that law enforcement is using some of the best technology available and being able to use it to catch people.
I want to take a little side trip here because you mentioned stuff about presenting information in front of juries. I’ve never had the opportunity to ask a prosecutor this. I’ve heard of this thing called the CSI effect where because of so many crime shows, juries now think that you should be able to very easily have all this perfect data, all this perfect information, results back in three minutes, and tie everything up nice and neatly in a bow. Do you find that as a problem prosecuting some of these cases?
Absolutely. The way that I have really dealt with that is during jury selection. You have to bring this up because the CSI effect is real. People do expect you to be able to solve something in 30 minutes. You definitely have to address that. That has become a bigger issue in a prosecutor or even attorney training. Defense, prosecution, it doesn’t matter. If you’re going out in front of a jury, you better understand the CSI effect because it does impact what they expect. You have to address those expectations early on.
I will say also that we’re seeing a lot of information being put out. Human trafficking in this country and worldwide, it’s going to continue to be a major problem. However, some of the statistics that we’re seeing, they’re not accurate. I don’t know that we actually have accurate stats, but the CSI effect, that also falls in when the public is given a lot of information. Let’s say we say that human trafficking victims are going to have—Joe Scarborough, he does a great job of putting this out.
If we tell the public, over and over again, human trafficking victims have bad teeth, they are malnourished, they have all this other stuff, and then I, as a prosecutor, bring a human trafficking case before them. Here’s this victim that she doesn’t have bad teeth, she doesn’t look like she’s unhealthy, there’s a lot of misinformation that gets out that we really do need to address. I’m glad you brought that up. The CSI effect is another one, especially when the technology hits. It’s a huge one.
What are some of the misconceptions and the misinformation about trafficking stats? What are some of those stats?
Joseph has done a lot of work in trying to dig in on that, but it’s something that’s really, really difficult to do. Again, as a prosecutor—and this is nationwide—most of the time, when we get a human trafficking case, if you think about things having a beginning, a middle, and an end, we’re usually getting into those in the middle. Not all human trafficking is sex. It’s labor trafficking. There are all kinds of things. We need to put that out.
When you get in the middle of it trying to prove what is going on and you’ve only got a very small snapshot, it’s incredibly difficult. Most of the time, you don’t get a human trafficking conviction. Usually, that falls away because it’s so much easier just to convict the guy on drugs, guns, money laundering, or something else. That’s much easier and it’s not victim-centered. Trying to get some of these victims to cooperate and testify against their trafficker, there are so many psychological factors and so many evidentiary issues with that. We really don’t have good stats for reasons like that.
I don’t really have anything prepared that I can send out to you. I just want to say that I do think that there are a lot of organizations, some of these nonprofits that are abusing stats in order to get donations. That’s one thing that we have to be careful of on many levels.
I can see that. Part of it makes sense to me that, as a prosecutor, I don’t sayhere to go for the lowest hanging fruit in terms of what you’re going to convict the person on. I suppose it’s if I have a higher chance of getting them in jail for this or a lower chance of getting them in jail for that, the important thing is getting them off the street, I suppose.
Absolutely. We’re just overrun with cases. There are just so many that—especially on the federal side—if we can get somebody in on gun and drug charges, they can hit pretty hard and get them put away pretty well with that. A lot of times, we’ll take that because we’ve got 10 more sitting here waiting that you don’t have to dig into. That’s just the reality of what we’re dealing with.
Some of it also kind of lowers the stress on the victims that they don’t have to testify about the abuse that they’ve gone through. I hear that talked around, but I don’t know if that’s the case. If the victim doesn’t have to testify, we can still get the person in jail, it saves re-traumatizing the victim.
Absolutely. Not only that, I can’t tell you how many times we’ve tracked down—we are the National Child Protection Task Force, but we work with any vulnerable population. If you were able to go around and talk to all of our volunteers, you would find that everybody’s got a passion for the vulnerable. It’s not just kids. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve found, let’s say, a 17-year-old and they say stop looking for us. I don’t want to go back.
These people may be making money off of me, but at least they care about me. When I said psychological factors, there are a lot and it’s not only that. I’m in law enforcement and I enjoy when they say, “Hey, look at all these kids you recovered.” That’s what we do, but you never see the news. The media doesn’t go back and say, ‘What happened to these kids? Let’s go back and check them out six weeks later. Where are these human trafficking victims? Where are they six weeks after this recovery happens?”
Law enforcement doesn’t do aftercare. They don’t do that recovery. That’s why you see all these nonprofits—and some of them are really wonderful—that have popped up and take care of people. A victim, when I need somebody to come and show up in court, and you’re looking at a year later, they’re very likely back out in that trafficking. Unfortunately, a lot of times it’s by choice. It’s how they pay the bills.
Not only that, these traffickers, a lot of times, will get them addicted to drugs. That drug addiction is a method of control over them and not the only one, but it is sad. It’s terribly sad.
Is a predominant amount of what you’ve dealt with is domestic trafficking or international trafficking?
The trafficking primarily is US-based, but we don’t really stick to one thing. Let’s just stick with children for the moment. We work with missing, exploited, and trafficked. There’s a lot of overlap. Just to simplify things, child exploitation for that, I’m generally talking about child rape videos that are sold on the dark web and often referred to as child pornography. Actually, it’s referred to as child pornography in the legal definition of the statutes, which we’re working to try to get changed.
Exploitation—this could go on forever, Chris. A child can be at home every night. A child can be at school every day. They can be exploited out of their own home. I can’t tell you how many we’ve worked where the parents are the ones raping the children or setting up the rape of that child, getting on video, taking pictures of it, and then they’ll share it or trade it on the dark web. That’s the exploitation side of it. It can be mixed with trafficking.
For trafficking, what I’m usually referring to are people who will go set up ads. You’re probably familiar with Backpage before it was shut down. They’ll post sex ads online and they’ll set up encounters where people will pay for sex and they’ll meet for sex—physically meet. You also have parents who don’t advertise, but it’s more word of mouth.
Barbara Jean Wilson, one of our survivor advisors, was trafficked by her own mom from the ages of 8–13. This is back before the internet. That still happens. We have the missing kids. We try to get in really fast on these cases with missing kids before they’re taken into the exploitation or trafficking, which they’re at higher risk. I’m not saying that every missing kid goes into that, but they’re at a much higher risk of being vulnerable for that.
Before we started recording, we talked a little bit about some of the definitions and the way these things are talked about. You talked about the nomenclature of missing versus runaway, how that impacts what happens, and how that can be used against them.
Right. Whoever’s listening, just do a search in your area. What are the guidelines that your local police department uses for runaway versus missing? I think you’ll find that nationwide, if a child is reported missing, it’s not considered a crime; no investigation will generally take place. It’s pretty much put on the parents to find that child. They’re going to be put into NCIC. If an officer somewhere happens to run that kid’s name, it’ll pop up as this kid’s a runaway and they will take custody of them and get them returned.
Predators are extremely aware of this. We see this over and over again—the grooming process. I’m sure you’ve seen things in the media about grooming. These predators are quite often recruiters. These traffickers and these child predators will have other people. They will pay in drugs, they will pay money, or they’ll pay a finder’s fee. It could be somebody that your child goes to school with that is paid to just go find vulnerable people that you can use in this business.
Predators understand this very well. Predators are very creative. I don’t like it when we say, “Look at these idiots out here.” They’re not idiots. They watch everything we do. They watch the news to learn lessons. They are well aware that being a runaway is a whole different level than being a missing child.
If you think about it yourself and your listeners, what do you think of when you hear the term missing child or abducted child? Now, what do you think about when you hear runaway? Law enforcement is the same way. What they’ll say is, “They’ll come back when they’re ready. They ran away. We’ll take a report, stick them in NCIC, and that’s it.”
Now predators, during the grooming process, will start building this rapport. They’ll start building this illusion of trust. During that time, they’ll start the isolation process. “Don’t tell your parents about me; they won’t understand. Don’t tell your friends about me; they won’t understand.” They start to isolate them. When they’re ready they’ll say, “Make sure that everybody knows you’re running away. We don’t want the police making a big deal about this. This is your decision. Make sure your parents know you’re running away, and make sure the law enforcement knows you’re running away.”
When that happens, the responsibility is placed on the parents to find that child. Law enforcement does what they can do, but I’ve had countless agencies say, “It’s not a crime; we can’t do anything.” We can’t go to Google, Facebook, Instagram, or anywhere else and say, “Give me your data because a crime has not been committed.” You see the problem we’re having. Not only that, but there are other things.
Let’s say we have—I don’t want to call anybody out—a social media or cellphone company. There is something that we can do under 18 U.S.C. 2702, which allows us, in an emergency, to go to the electronic source provider and say, “I need this data. I’ve got an emergency.”
Right now, the general thought is, let’s say for the first 48 hours, we can do that, but after that, they’re going to say, it’s not an emergency anymore. You need to get a warrant. Let’s say we’ve got an 11-year-old out that is missing from home. It’s only an emergency for 48 hours, after that we have to shift back to the search warrant process which could take weeks.
We have so many of these small issues that need to be addressed and need to be addressed on a national level. The missing versus the runaway, and I haven’t even touched on foster care yet. I do want to point out that I’m not saying foster parents are responsible for all of these, but there are foster parents that are doing bad things just like there are natural parents doing bad things.
But Kevin Branzetti has always said, “You go to any major agency and say, ‘How many car thefts have you got here? How many robberies happened last month. How many burglaries happened?’” They’re going to be able to tell you numbers. You say, “How many kids have you got that are runaways from your jurisdiction? How many are missing?” They don’t have a clue.
You can probably go to each state and say, “How many kids are in foster care or are supposed to be?” That’s another number that I just can’t get. I don’t think, as far as I can tell, and we’ve been asking. Those numbers don’t exist. That’s why I said stats—there are so many problems with statistics that sometimes we don’t even know what question to ask.
That’s the scary thing is that there are people missing and no one knows who’s missing or there’s no tracking at some level of who’s missing.
Yeah, there are so many good parents out here, but if you’re a good person and a good parent, you’re living in a bubble. You’re not really aware that kids are missing out of foster care and are at a higher risk. You’re not aware of these runaways. You’re not aware of what’s happening because you’re not buying sex, you’re not on the dark web looking for these videos. Most of the people out here aren’t aware of what’s going on.
That’s the scary aspect to me. What are some of the things that put children at risk of even exploitation, trafficking, and kidnapping rather than missing, because I don’t know if that’s the right term for that at the moment?
Kidnappings do happen. But let’s say you’re a criminal. Would you want to go out here and snatch some kid when all you’ve got to do is talk to him for a few weeks and convince him to run away? Would you?
Yes. We prefer missing or not. You have two choices when it comes to a child. If the child is in the care of a parent or a guardian, they’re not missing. If they are not there, they’re missing. They’re not runaways, they’re not any of these other labels. We definitely need the law enforcement checking into that. There’s a lot of stuff that we need to do to fix that. Chris, what was your question again?
What are some of the things that put children at risk for each of those categories?
Constantly, I am asked what to avoid. Pretty much anything that touches the internet, including school and library. I think that not having a connection with the parent, guardian, or some adult that you can trust. If you don’t have a connection where you can come to that adult and say, “This person I’m talking to online is making me uncomfortable.”
Most of what we see are the parents trying to control everything. Trying to control all the apps, all the accounts that are on the device. I’m not saying that shouldn’t happen, but when that child gets to 14, 15, 16, and 17 and you’re still doing that, there’s probably a burner device. They probably got a secondary phone with their accounts on it, and that’s where all the danger comes from. They no longer have that connection with that parent. They no longer have a safe place where they can go to an adult and say “Something’s going on here.”
Most of the time, if they do that, there’s a knee-jerk reaction of that parent, understandably, of “I’m going to protect my child, so I’m taking their phone away from them.” That child, that is their life, especially after COVID. That’s where their social connections are. That’s where their friends are. If they can’t come to a parent and tell that parent, talk to that parent about sex, that’s very difficult for a lot of parents.
When I grew up, there was no talk. It was just, don’t do it. That was the rule—you don’t have sex. That was the only talk we had, and I still see a lot of parents doing that, of “I don’t talk to my kids about sex. They know they’re not supposed to do it until they’re married.” OK, how is that going to work? Not very well.
I put this more on the parents saying if you really want to protect your kids, you have to develop a relationship. You’ve got to put that device down, and you’ve got to look at what is one thing I can do today that can improve the relationship with my child? That’s going to be different. If you’ve got more than one child, the parent-child relationship with each of those children is likely very different.
Listening to each child on an individual level and loving that kid for who they are, not for who you want them to be, and accept them if they want to be a philosophy major instead of going medical school, or maybe they don’t want to go to college at all. Maybe they want to go into welding or something. You have to be OK with that, to accept them for who they are and their own interests, and not try to control everything they do, because again, that’s an illusion of safety and security that doesn’t really exist.
I really don’t think you’re going to be able to protect kids that way. I think it’s going to be the relationship that protects them.
I thought the same way for all the tech that there is out there, all the neat things that we can do with it, like trying to protect someone, you’re 100% protected by this technology. It’s not just going to happen. If you’re trying to keep your kids off—“I don’t want my kids to ever go online.” Well, they’re going to find a way around that.
The answer is not more tech, more controls, it’s about the relationship that the parents have with the kid. I like that. What can I do today to connect and to grow my relationship with my kid, and that being the foundation of giving them the space to talk about what’s going on in their life and talk about the difficulties they’re having.
Yes, because what we’re going to see over and over again during the grooming process, they’re looking for that natural break that happens between parent and child as they grow older. There’s that natural separation where that child is saying, “Hey, I’m becoming an adult and an individual. I want to start figuring out who I am and what I am.”
If you add in eating disorders, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, or anything like that, that’s a whole ‘nother level of vulnerability, and they zero in on that. They take full advantage of it, and they build that trust. Whereas the parent, if your child has an eating disorder, depression, or something like that, you’re probably increasing your care naturally and you’re trying to make that kid eat, and you’re not really listening because you’re in a panic mode. That creates even more of a gap, and those predators know that, and they will slide into that.
Work to build trust, not to build better tech.
Yeah. There’s a lot of social engineering that goes on in this. I can’t remember who it was asked. We had a conference last week. Chris Hadnagy—a great guy, founder of the ILF—Innocent Lives Foundation—and also a social engineer—he was talking about this process, and I think somebody asked him or one of our speakers, “If these people online are complimenting my daughter on something she’s done—I compliment her all the time—why doesn’t that work?” It’s the weight.
I think as Chris was saying, it’s the weight that we give. That child is going to think, “You’re my parent; you’re supposed to say that. This other person, I don’t know them, but they just complimented me.” That builds this oxytocin and this illusion of trust and this connection. That’s exactly what happens, and that’s exactly why parents need to work harder at developing that relationship, connection, and that trust.
That sounds so important. Let’s take a little shift here. When it comes to the recovery of missing and exploited children, I imagine that you run across and have to deal with a little bit of what I do. On my day job, I run the website called whatismyipaddress.com where it provides a lot of potentially specific information about the way you connect to the internet and potentially where you are.
There’s a general response of, “Oh gosh, you’re exposing private information about me.” But I also talk about privacy services. There’s this delicate balance between privacy and knowing what data about you is out there. How do you deal with that in trying to recover missing kids? I assume there’s so much pressure on law enforcement, particularly now. You can access this but you can’t access that. This is private, but that’s not private. You need a court order for that or exigent circumstances for this. I can see all these things pushing and pulling on the ability to investigate and the ability to help get kids back home.
That has been huge. First of all, I want to say the National Child Protection Task Force is made up of active duty law enforcement in the military and other people. We have to follow rules. I’m a prosecutor. I want everything we do to be prosecutable on the end of that. Privacy is a huge thing. We only work with law enforcement.
There has to be an agency within jurisdiction over the investigation. The reason for that is that we don’t know if a child is running from parents who are exploiting or trafficking them. We have run into that more than once. It’s not like a parent can come to us and say, “My kid is missing. Can you find him for me?” It’s not how this works.
We have to follow the rules of the jurisdiction that we’re working with. Some of them are more restrictive, some of them are more open. I want to put that out there, first of all. But, we do use extremely sensitive and controversial tools. I mentioned Kevin Branzetti a few times. He’s retired from NYPD, head of the cyber intel. His whole world is counterterrorism.
His three golden rules that he came up with—the number one for us—it’s gotta have a valid law enforcement purpose. I realize that can be a lot of things, but if some agency comes to us and says, “Hey, we got this immigration group down here.” That’s not what we do. We don’t do immigration. We don’t do anything like that.
For us, a valid purpose is that there’s a vulnerable person that is at risk, being exploited, being harmed, or in danger. That’s generally what we go by. The second rule: we have to use the least invasive means necessary. The third is we always protect civil liberties, civil rights, and privacy rights. We always do that to the maximum of our abilities.
Now, you have to consider this year alone, we have exceeded a thousand assists to law enforcement. The reputation that we get on this over and over and over again is very, very high. We have, I think, the best way of doing these investigations and doing them to protect as much privacy as we can while zeroing in on the right people.
You’re in technology, you know how easy it can be to go down a rabbit hole, and it’s not the right person. There’s a lot of resources and time wasted, and we can’t do that. For facial recognition, for example, I know there’s a lot of controversy over, well, this targets minorities and gives false positives. That’s got to be trained through artificial intelligence, the algorithm has to be trained. There should never be a time when I run a face through—I don’t know what color they are, what race they are—I run a face through and I get a hit. I’m thinking, “That looks like the guy.” That’s not enough, it’s never enough.
That investigator, and if we work with them, there’s got to be that understanding where you don’t arrest this person based on an algorithm. You have to follow up. You’ve got to look for tattoos. You have to look for environmental features. You have to look for something else that also will point to this person because we have agencies and that’s what makes the news.
When an agency screws up, it’s not technology that screws up, it’s the investigator’s failure to follow proper investigative procedure. As a prosecutor, I understand eyewitness testimony is incredibly unreliable. Even if I have a person that’s pointing during a lineup saying, “That’s the guy right there.” I want more, that’s not enough, and neither is running this facial recognition program, and it’s saying, “Hey, this is the guy.”
Facial recognition, let’s say it’s taking your face and it’s saying, “What looks like Chris in all my data?” And it’s going to say, “These guys look like Chris. These are the closest matches I have.” None of them may be you. You have to understand the limitations of technology. If you don’t, you’re going to misuse it, you’re going to screw up an investigation, you’re going to arrest the wrong people, and that’s going to happen.
I’m going to interrupt and ask—and I don’t know if you can answer the question or not. We say eyewitness testimony, on a scale of one to something—I’ll call it a five. Is there this general perception within the law enforcement community that the facial recognition algorithm would be a seven or an eight, or should it be treated as a five also?
For me, I don’t generally look at it that way. We work closely with the super-recognizers out in the UK at Grant University. We work pretty closely with Kelly who’s top super-recognizer, at least on the civilian side. She works in anti-terrorism and different things. So we work with kids a lot. Let’s say you get a child rape video, you get screenshots. Just the nature of these videos, you’re going to get the face of the child. Sometimes if we’re lucky, the face of the predator, the child rapist. We run those through.
When you’re running kids, you get a lot of hits. The algorithm itself I look at is triage. It’s a way of triaging all of the stuff that we can get on the internet that’s been released into the wild. People taking selfies and throwing them out there. I really don’t think they have that much interest in privacy if you’re sending your images out into the wild of the internet.
The first step, we triage that and we get all these kids. A lot of times, it’s 200 or 300. I’ll get Kelly on and say, “Kelly, can you look through these? I got 200 kids that I don’t know.” I’m not a super-recognizer. That’s one thing I want to point out. There’s a genetic component to this.
I can look through those and my fatigue level is substantial and then I think that’s where a lot of privacy concerns are. If I had to start diving into this person’s social media to get more of an idea—Kelly a few weeks ago took 700 images. Just went down, selected to fewer than 10 to an investigator. We identified a predator and two child victims that were prepubescent out of that process.
We have one guy—we’re testing this facial recognition out—we ran him and he said, “Where did I take that picture?” Turns out, it wasn’t him. He didn’t even recognize his own face. It did look a lot like him. But when you have people like Kelly—and there’s a genetic component to this—then you have people on the other end of the scale that really can’t recognize faces—there’s a medical condition.
We don’t test the public. So, I don’t know whether this person is a super-recognizer or whether they’re at the low end of the spectrum. Plus, they’ve probably just been through an incredibly stressful event. They know exactly what that gun looks like, they know exactly what the knife looks like, and they think they know what that guy’s face looks like.
There are so many things that we can’t blame the victim of that for a faulty identification anymore than we can blind that technology for getting really close. What we can do is say to the investigator, “You better be able to follow up, follow procedure, put safeguards in place, and make sure that you have something else that identifies that person before they take action.”
That makes perfect sense. I don’t even remember where we got into this.
There are so many things that we can get into.
We were talking about that push and pull between privacy, your access to the data, and being able to make decisions. Is legislation behind the curve, is public opinion in front of the curve? Obviously, you have a perspective of being in law enforcement so there’s that position from it.
There is, yes. In law enforcement, I’ve got to say that if you got me five years ago compared to right now, it’s about repetition and exposure. To backtrack, and I’m probably going to forget what we’re talking about, but Abraham Lincoln had this quote, “Give me eight hours to chop down a tree, I’m going to spend six hours sharpening my ax.”
When I set up this nonprofit, we decided our investigators would take on terrorism, property crimes, homicides, drug cases, anything where technology touches because we want to get really, really good. So that constant exposure, different methods, different facts, and not only that, we work internationally now, so we’re exposed to other countries, their investigators, and how they do things.
We take all of that into our own way of doing things. As Bruce Lee said, when you first start off, “A punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.” Then after you’ve done it a little bit, it’s no longer that. It’s something more, it’s something different. But then 10,000 or 20,000 repetitions later, a punch is just a punch, a kick is just a kick. Now for us, it doesn’t matter what kind of investigation or where it is in the world, I can see the intricate details.
You go to a politician and try to explain what I can see and the nuances I see, there’s a lot. It’s like you, you’re a technology guy. You try to explain what you do to the average politician and get them to understand at a level where they can use policy and guide policy. It’s so incredibly difficult to do. We’re seeing that right now,
Senator Wyden, for example, has dropped the bill, the Fourth Amendment is Not For Sale. What they’re going to do effectively is to limit law enforcement’s ability to use technology at all. They’re going to take that away and I don’t think the public is aware of how much that is going to hit our ability to work on what criminals do.
Criminals, as you know, are using all these data. They’re hunting our kids. They’re hunting our elderly. How many adults do you see that are scammed? It’s all the time. If you tell law enforcement that you can no longer hunt in technology, you can’t use facial recognition, you can’t use all this other stuff because people have done bad things with it. That’s like going in and saying, “Law enforcement, this officer over here shot this guy and it wasn’t justified, so we’re taking everybody’s guns away. You can’t have them anymore.” Or, “This officer had a pursuit and accidentally killed this innocent couple, so we’re taking away your ability to drive cars.”
They’re wanting us to hunt predators in the technology space, but they want to take away the tools because of some misuse. That is coming and it’s going to hit hard if it does because we use a lot of sensitive tools to find kids, to bring them to safety, and to bring predators to justice.
There are a lot of things that it’s just difficult to make a politician or anybody else aware of the reality of it unless we can bring them in and say, “This is what’s going on. Here’s how this really works.”
Another complaint I get, especially in federal agencies, is that the media, the reporters don’t really get to talk to the guys on the ground level that are actually doing the work, doing the reps, and seeing everything. They talk to the public information officers. Again, not saying anything bad about public information officers, but they haven’t done this and they don’t know the nuances—all of the stuff—how it really works, how it plays out. They’re doing the best they can, but what they tell the media is not really the big picture. We have all of this misinformation that’s flying around and politicians are trying to make laws based on what they think they know.
I don’t want either extreme. I want there to be a nice balance. I want it to be this constant tension between privacy and access. Our situation is where privacy potentially should be violated for a bigger cause. In other cases, maybe privacy is more important than this one specific issue, and it’s always going to be this tension of push and pull. That’s why I want to say I like it when there’s a little bit of tension between these things. Hopefully, we find a balance.
There’s got to be a balance. You’re going through law school, of course, they hit in the first year, you don’t really have any absolute rights. What absolute rights do you have, freedom of speech? Can you shout fire at a crowded theater? There’s always that balance. You’ve got to find the balance. We are creating this cult of privacy here that people think everything they do has got to have absolute privacy. Yet, as you know, being in technology, what are we exposing through our cell phones, through things like this? What are we exposing every day?
People take selfies, take pictures, post pictures, and all of this stuff is out there, yet they say, “You can’t use that, it’s my privacy.” There’s got to be a balance. I wish somebody would put a poll out, Wall Street Journal or somebody. Just put a poll out and say, “Would you allow us to look through your stuff if we thought you had something to do that can lead to the rescue of a child or the arrest of a child rapist? Would you allow that?”
I think most people would say, “I’m OK with that,” or something along those lines. I think most people are OK with saying, “I’ll give up a little of my privacy if we can arrest the child rapist or save a child.”
I would tend to agree. And on the flip side, when you have people working on law enforcement who take advantage of those systems for their own personal gains, that needs to be dealt with appropriately as well.
That absolutely does, yes. If somebody violates something, but that goes back to what we do. We have checks and balances so if we use a tool, we have somebody else that is not using that tool, they’ll come in and spot check. Nothing can be deleted so you come in and spot check. Everything better be matching up, and you better have a record of it.
There are a lot of things we could do. You have to limit what goes in and what comes out. You have to limit what cases. Personally, I don’t think a lot of the technology and investigations should be used on shoplifting or if somebody got their car keyed down at the parking lot. I don’t care who they are, I don’t think you should be writing a reverse location search warrant to Google or anybody else for stuff like that. I think that this stuff should be saved for the really important stuff.
A car was keyed in this parking lot. We want all the location data of every phone that was in this parking lot at the same time.
That’s why it gives us a bad name, or the EFF—I can’t remember her name right off the bat. I was in a discussion in this forum where they said this lady was attacked on this trail, out in the park, and they ran a geofence search warrant and came up with this guy. That led to him being exposed as an attacker, something happened there that got him exposed, and it wasn’t him.
I say, let’s go back 20 years ago, and let’s say his neighbors said, “I saw Fred going up the trail, and I think that might have been him.” The investigator screws it up and exposes Fred as being the attacker and it wasn’t him. The point being is that it’s not the technology’s fault. It’s the investigator that doesn’t follow up, that doesn’t have safeguards in place, and that doesn’t understand the limitations of technology as it fits into that scenario.
What gets made public in the process of sorting through it all.
Yes. The investigations, a lot of it is just old school investigations, but you apply technology to it. But people don’t, they trust technology too much. They trust that facial recognition—that’s AI—I’ve heard that word, I’ve heard that term out there. “It told me that that’s the guy, so it must be that guy.” They don’t understand the limitations. They don’t understand how technology works, how it got to this point, and what they need to do to ensure that the investigation is properly done.
As we wrap up here, I’m thinking of a product, service, app, or whatever you call it, called TraffickCam that they’re asking people when you’re traveling to take a photo of your hotel room and upload it to this platform. That way it provides organizations like yours with more data points. Have you found whether it’s that product specifically or other products like that that have aided in recovery?
That has. Anything dealing with images is very important. Again, you being in technology, you understand this, but on the dark web, predators are sharing data. They have manuals, they have a collective. Like, our podcast or somebody watching, that’s their job. They go through and say, “I learned this, so I’m going to go to the manual, and I’m going to update the manual.” This is how they outsmart us and that’s how they stay ahead of us.
We have to be very careful not to educate the bad guys. Sometimes, an image, especially when you’re dealing with child rape videos. Again, this is not child pornography, I want to point that out. Child sexual abuse material is the general term, but I always point out these are child rape videos.
Sometimes those videos will have something in the background. If it’s in a hotel room, you take a picture, then we’ve got that by date and time. Sometimes there’s a picture, there’s a bedspread, there’s carpeting, there’s something in there that will help us identify the location where this happened and the time frame when this happened. Anything like that is very important. I’ve also been playing around with Jumbo—privacy. That’s an app I’ve been looking at. It’s a paid app, but as I’m sure you’re aware, if the app is free, you’re the product.
This is a paid app, but they go back in and they scroll up social media, look at your settings, and give you recommendations. I really like that one. That’s another one that I’ve been recommending.
That’s a nice balance of helping out and protecting yourself and your family from being able to learn about you.
People ask me, “Why do you push privacy if you’re hunting these people?” You have to consider how many victims there are. I am a prosecutor. Yeah, I care about children, but I don’t just care about children. I care about everybody. I care about my family. I care about yours. I see so many people coming in and saying, “I’ve been victimized. These guys are stalking me.” And I’ll go and say, “All right, is this your email?” They’ll say, “Yeah.” And I’ll come back and say, “Is this your password? Is this your log-in to iTunes or other accounts?” “Yeah, how do you know that?” I’ll say, “Probably the same way the stalker has gotten to your stuff.” It’s password hygiene, but we need to protect everybody, and you have to find that balance. Yeah, the criminals are going to get good. Apple is going to improve its encryption on something. We’re not going to be able to get content, but we’ll find a way to hunt those guys regardless of what happens with technology because that’s what we do and we’re going to keep going no matter what changes.
Crime is happening and people are involved, there’s more than the technology involved.
Yes, there’s always some trail to follow. We’ve just got to find it.
I think that is the perfect way to finish up. There’s always a trail, there’s always a sign that we have to follow.
If people want to learn more about you or the National Child Protection Task Force, where can they find both of those online?
At our website, www.ncptf.org.
- Easy Prey Podcast
- General Topics
- Home Computing
- IP Addresses
- Online Privacy
- Online Safety
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