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Using Technology to Fight Child Trafficking and Exploitation

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Children are exploited, trafficked, and go missing every day. Some factors, such as misinformation among the general public, can make it even harder to fight child trafficking and exploitation. It takes investigators, prosecutors, and private sector technology working together to help these children.

See Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking with Kevin Metcalf for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Kevin Metcalf started his career in the Army in 1988. Since then, he’s been in one uniform or another – state, local, and federal law enforcement, and later counterterrorism. In 2006 he became a single parent to his two daughters, ages two and five, when their mother died. At the time, he was doing counterterrorism work. One Thanksgiving, he was in London for work when his overnight babysitter called and said she couldn’t make it. Luckily, he had some amazing neighbors who stepped in and took care of his daughters. But that was it – Kevin decided he needed to do something that kept him closer to home.

He returned to the United States, went to law school, and became a prosecuting attorney. As an investigator, he was trained to look in data silos. He had to know about DNA, fingerprints, and how all of that worked. But cell phones were pretty much unknown at that point. Using cell phone location data, social media, and other electronic evidence wasn’t being done much.

Finding Somewhere to Make a Difference

Kevin had spent over twenty years in law enforcement, but as a prosecuting attorney, he was the new guy. He started looking around for somewhere he could make a difference. That place ended up being social media, cell phones, computers, and other technology that was new at the time. He went through the FBI’s CAST training and went to the Secret Service National Computer Training Center three times to learn about forensics and social media.

Working with cell phones and social media led to a lot of cases involving children and child predators. He had many jury trials that involved social media and cell phone evidence. That’s where he found a major difference between investigating and prosecuting. As an investigator, he just had to find the evidence. As a prosecutor, he had twelve people from the community with varying levels of interest, expertise, and usage of technology. He had to figure out how to connect the technological evidence to the witness statements, forensic reports, and more “traditional” evidence.

After a few of those trials, it really clicked. Why were investigators not making these connections on the front end? Law enforcement treats everything as its own separate silo. But it all fits together, and as a prosecutor Kevin had to start making those connections.

Returning to Investigations

Kevin’s combined experience as an investigator and a prosecutor led him to go back and start helping with investigations again. In each case, there were federal agencies and other agencies involved. Kevin would come in and tell them what information to ask for and what language to include on the search warrant. Usually, with Kevin’s help, they recovered the kids within a day.

This brought Kevin to the attention of the National Cybercrime Conference. The conference brings in experts in cybercrime from all over. Kevin spoke there about the work he was doing to combat child trafficking and exploitation. Other experts saw what he was doing and how much he was helping people and wanted to be a part of it.

Now, they’ve formed a nonprofit, the National Child Protection Task Force, made of active-duty law enforcement, active-duty military, private sector technology experts, engineers, and a wide variety of others. They come together to look at problems and ask questions about technology. What data are we seeing? Is there anything we can do with that? What information are we not asking for, and what do we not know? This variety of experts coming together has made a big difference.

The CSI Effect

Crime shows have made it more difficult to fight child trafficking and exploitation in court. Juries think that prosecutors should easily have perfect data and perfect information, get their results in three minutes, and tie everything up neatly with no ambiguity. It’s a big problem, and it’s something that has to be brought up and dealt with during jury selection.

The CSI effect is real. People do expect you to be able to solve something in 30 minutes. … If you’re going in front of a jury, you better understand the CSI effect because it does impact what they expect.

Kevin Metcalf

There’s also a lot of information being put out about child trafficking and human trafficking in general. The “CSI effect” also happens when the public is given lots of information. If the public is told over and over that trafficking victims have bad teeth and are malnourished, they’ll believe it. That makes it very hard for a prosecutor when the victim doesn’t have bad teeth or look malnourished. Despite what the evidence, people may have a hard time believing they were a victim because they don’t look like their idea of a victim.

Misconceptions and Misinformation about Child Trafficking

Most things have a beginning, a middle, and an end. As a prosecutor, most of the time they get human trafficking cases in the middle. When you get a case in the middle, you’re trying to prove what’s going on and you only have a small snapshot of events. It’s incredibly difficult. Most of the time, prosecutors don’t get a human trafficking conviction. It’s much easier to convict on charges relating to drugs, guns, or money laundering. Prosecutors are overrun with cases. If they can get the defendant convicted on gun or drug charges, it can still get them put away. Many prosecutors take that route because they have ten more child trafficking cases waiting for them and the important part is to get that person off the street.

Not all human trafficking is sex. It’s labor trafficking. There are all kinds of things.

Kevin Metcalf

Child trafficking and human trafficking in general will continue to be a major problem in the United States and worldwide. But there’s a lot of misinformation out there that needs to be addressed. Some of the statistics that get frequently quoted aren’t accurate. Kevin isn’t sure that we have accurate statistics. Many organizations and some nonprofits overuse misleading statistics in order to get donations. You have to be careful of that on many levels.

Difficulties for Victims

Being able to convict the trafficker and get them off the street without having the victim testify can be very beneficial. It can help avoid re-traumatizing the victims. But getting victims to cooperate and testify against their trafficker can be difficult. There are many psychological factors involved. Many times Kevin and his team have found a teenager who says to stop looking for them. They may be a victim of child trafficking and they know these people are making money off them, but they feel like they care.

Law enforcement cares about how many missing children and child trafficking victims are recovered. That’s what makes the news. The media doesn’t go back and check on the victims after they’re “saved.” Law enforcement doesn’t do aftercare. There are some great nonprofits who have popped up to help these victims. But when you look at a victim a year later, they’re likely back out in that trafficking. Often it’s by choice – that’s how they pay the bills. But many traffickers get their victims addicted to drugs as a means of control, which can contribute to this, as well.

Child Trafficking, Child Exploitation, Missing Children, and Runaways

The National Child Protection Task Force works with missing, exploited, and trafficked children, And there is a lot of overlap between the three categories. Child exploitation generally refers to child rape videos sold on the dark web. It’s often called child porn, and that’s what it’s called in the legal definitions. That’s something that Kevin and his team are working to change.

When a child is exploited, they may be home every night and at school every day. They can be exploited in their own home. Kevin can’t tell you how many cases he’s worked were parents are the ones committing or setting up the rape of their child, filming it, and then sharing or trading it on the dark web. That’s exploitation.

Child trafficking refers to people who post ads online. You probably heard of Backpage when it was shut down – that was one site where people would post these ads. From these ads, they would set up encounters were people pay to physically meet. This can also happen without the internet and through word of mouth.

When a child is missing, it’s important to move fast. Law enforcement may be able to recover that child before they’re exploited or brought into child trafficking. Not every missing kid is being exploited or trafficked, but they are at higher risk and much more vulnerable.

Missing Children vs. Runaways

Kevin encourages everyone to do a search for your local area. What are the guidelines for local police on missing children vs runaways? Nationwide, a child reported as a runaway isn’t considered a crime. They will be put in the National Crime Information Center so if an officer runs their name they’ll show up as a runaway, but there’s no investigation. It’s up to the parent to find the child.

Predators are aware of this. They often make it part of the grooming process. Some predators are recruiters for people looking for child trafficking victims. They’re not idiots, and they’re well aware that a runaway is treated different from a missing child. During the grooming process, they build rapport and an illusion of trust and start to isolate the child. They’ll tell the child not to tell their friends or parents because they wouldn’t understand. When they’re ready to take the child, they tell them to make sure everyone knows they’re running away. “We don’t want the police to make a big deal about it,” they say. “This is your decision.”

When that happens, the responsibility to find the child is left on the parent. Kevin has heard countless agencies say “It’s not a crime, we can’t do anything.” You can’t go to Google or Facebook and say, “Give me your data because a crime has not been committed.” It’s the same principle. Because it’s not considered a crime, there’s not much they can do.

An Argument for Changing Terminology

Kevin prefers the terms either missing or not missing. You have two options when it comes to a child. If the child is in the care of their parent or guardian, they’re not missing. If they’re not there, the child is missing. Law enforcement needs to check in and do something to find the child. Using labels like “runaway” just makes it harder to keep missing kids out of child trafficking and exploitation.

You can ask any major agency how many car thefts, robberies, or burglaries they had last month, and they’ll tell you numbers. If you ask how many runaways or missing kids they have, they don’t have a clue. The numbers just don’t exist. There are so many problems with the statistics that sometimes it’s hard to know what questions to ask. This is just one of the many small issues that needs addressed on a national level.

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.

Kevin Metcalf

What Puts Children at Risk of Child Trafficking and Exploitation

Kidnappings do happen. But if you’re a criminal, why would you go out and snatch a kid when all you have to do is talk to them for a few weeks and convince them to run away? Kevin is constantly asked what to avoid to protect kids. The answer is anything that touches the internet, including schools and libraries. Obviously, that’s impractical. But the best protection against child trafficking and exploitation is a connection with a parent, guardian, or other adult the child can trust.

Kevin sees a lot of parents trying to control everything. They want to control all the apps and accounts and know everything that goes on. Kevin isn’t saying that shouldn’t happen. But when your child gets into their teenage years and you’re still doing it, they probably have a burner phone. This is a second phone with all their accounts on it, and that’s where the danger lies. They can no longer talk to their parent if something happens.

Many parents have a knee-jerk reaction that to protect their child, they need to take away their phone. But for a child, that phone is their life, especially after COVID. That’s where their connections and friends are. If they can’t tell their parent that they feel threatened or unsafe online without losing all social connection, they just won’t tell them.

Building a Relationship is the Best Protection

A strong relationship where your child feels like they can trust you and talk to you is the best protection against losing them to child trafficking and exploitation. You have to do things to improve that relationship. If you have multiple kids, your relationship with each will probably look different, and that’s fine. Listen to each child on an individual level, love them for who they are, and accept them – even if what they want for themselves is different than what you want for them. You’re not going to be able to protect your kids by controlling them. That’s just an illusion of safety. It’s going to be the relationship that protects them.

If you really want to protect your kids, you have to develop a relationship.

Kevin Metcalf

Predators look for that natural break between parent and child as child gets older. There’s a natural separation where the child is becoming an adult and their own individual. They want to figure out who and what they are. If you’re not building a relationship with your child as they become more independent, that’s even more of a gap for a predator to exploit.

There’s a strong element of social engineering that goes into it as well. People say, “I compliment my child all the time. Why does this stranger complementing them online have so much more impact?” It’s the weight. You’re the parent, so your child feels like you’re supposed to say that regardless of whether or not it’s true. The stranger didn’t have to say anything but they did anyway, and it builds an illusion of trust. That’s why parents have to work so hard to build that relationship and connection.

Privacy vs Access in Recovering Kids from Child Trafficking and Exploitation

Many members of the National Child Protection Task Force are active-duty law enforcement or military. They have to follow rules. And as a prosecutor, Kevin wants people to follow rules to make it easier to prosecute in court. Every case also involves an agency that has jurisdiction over the investigation, and they have to follow the rules of the jurisdiction.

When it comes to privacy, some jurisdictions are more restrictive than others. Privacy is very important, and they do use some extremely sensitive and controversial tools. They have three “golden rules” to protect privacy in their work. There must be a valid law enforcement purpose, they have to use the least invasive means necessary, and they must always protect civil liberties, civil rights, and privacy rights to the maximum extent of their abilities. They want to find missing and exploited children, but they also want to protect privacy.

In tech, it’s easy to chase the wrong person and waste a lot of resources. Facial recognition, for example, has a lot of controversy around it. But there should never be a point where you run a face through facial recognition, get a hit, and say, “That must be our guy.” You can’t arrest people based on an algorithm. There has to be some follow-up and other factors that implicate the person as well.

When an agency screws up, it’s not technology that screws up, it’s the investigator’s failure to follow proper investigative procedure.

Kevin Metcalf

Issues of Legislation

A recently proposed bill, “The Fourth Amendment is Not For Sale,” would effectively limit law enforcement’s ability to use technology. Kevin doesn’t think the public is aware of how much that’s going to limit their ability to rescue kids from child trafficking and exploitation. Criminals use data – it happens all the time. Telling law enforcement they can no longer use technology because it’s possible to do bad things with it is like preventing law enforcement from driving cars because they could hit someone.

They want us to hunt predators in the technology space, but they want to take away the tools because of some misuse … it’s going to hit hard if it [happens] because we use a lot of sensitive tools to find kids, to bring them to safety, and to bring predators to justice.

Kevin Metcalf

There has to be a balance. When Kevin was in law school, one of the first things he was taught was that we don’t have absolute rights. We may have freedom of speech, for example, but we still can’t shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We’re creating a cult of privacy where everyone things everything they do has to have complete privacy. And yet what are we exposing every day through our phones and social media? Kevin wishes someone could put out a national poll asking if people would allow them to look through their information if it would lead to the rescue of a child or the arrest of a predator. He thinks most people would be willing to give up a tiny bit of their privacy to save a child.

Learn more about Kevin Metcalf and the National Child Protection Task Force on their website,

Listen to the full episode on YouTube

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