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Homeland Security Investigations makes child exploitation a core priority

Featuring HSI Special Agents
Ian Quinn
Deputy Assistant Director of the Cyber Crimes Center (C3)
Chair of the Virtual Global Task Force (VGT)

Patrick Redling
Unit Chief of the Child Exploitation Investigations Unit (CEIU)

Special agents of the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) directorate of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are reaching across the globe and through cyberspace to crack down on child exploitation in all its forms. In physical and digital realms, these crimes have become international in scope and without boundaries.

HSI creates partnerships with other nations, nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s), and multinational networks to investigate child-sex tourism and related crimes. The agency also explores the darker areas of the Internet to find purveyors and collectors of child pornography, and it analyzes contraband images for clues to the locations of exploited children.

In the United States, HSI leverages its nationwide network of special agents to pursue predators in physical and digital space.

Two HSI special agents discussed these interrelated enforcement endeavors with Inside Homeland Security.

Ian Quinn, Deputy Assistant Director of the Cyber Crimes Center (C3), was recently appointed Chair of the Virtual Global Task Force (VGT), a worldwide partnership of law- enforcement agencies, NGO’s, and private sector companies to help protect children from online abuse.

Patrick Redling is Unit Chief of the Child Exploitation Investigations Unit (CEIU), which includes the recently established Victim Identification Program for analyzing child-pornography images for clues to identify victims.

ICE, whose legacy agencies have had a long history of investigating child exploitation, continues to make these crimes a core agency priority. ICE’s unique investigative and enforcement authorities are well suited to the nature of child-exploitation crimes, combining customs and immigration law and exercising a global reach.

ICE’s Operation Predator assembles a comprehensive collection of investigative resources to address child exploitation:

The National Child Victim Identification System in partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the U.S. Secret Service, the Department of Justice, and other entities.

ICE special agents stationed internationally work with foreign governments and law-enforcement officials.

Membership in the VGT.

Child-sex Tourism

By its nature, child-sex tourism is international in scope, which requires HSI to work closely with partners overseas, Unit Chief Redling said. Special agents in 74 offices in 48 countries maintain relationships with law-enforcement officers in the host nations. In addition, HSI relies on NGO’s to offer information about crimes that are occurring overseas.

“I used to work in the Moscow attaché office,” Unit Chief Redling said. “We worked closely with Russian authorities in combating child-sex tourism in Moscow. I can tell you first-hand of the importance of having those relationships with the boots on the ground. There’s only so much you can do over the phone or via e-mail. It’s very important to be working face-to-face with our partners overseas in combating these crimes.”

A recent ABC Nightline report, “The Virgin Trade,” available for viewing online, depicts these partnerships in an undercover operation to expose child prostitution in the Philippines. HSI special agents collaborate with local law officers in the Subic Bay area of the Philippines as they investigate and raid an American ex-patriot’s bar that serves as a front for prostituting girls. An official with an NGO assists with the investigation and extends help to the girls after the raid.

HSI has found these international relationships relatively straightforward to establish due to the common goal of fighting child exploitation.

“It’s a pretty easy partnership to form with the foreign government, even if there are other things outside of our control that may be in play between the two governments,” Unit Chief Redling said. “When police officers are working together, we can accomplish a lot, especially in the realm of child exploitation.”

Since 2003, HSI special agents investigating child sex tourism have made 260 arrests leading to 278 indictments and 205 convictions.

Child Pornography

These investigations focus on identifying and rescuing victims as well as arresting predators, Deputy Assistant Director Quinn said. The guiding principle is that if you find the victim, you will find the offender:

“Every one of these images, these thousands and millions that we talk about—it’s child pornography; that’s the legal definition. But it’s also an image of a crime scene. In many cases, it’s an image of a rape and molestation of children. Unfortunately, we’re seeing victims—one was 18 days old—some very young victims all the way up to teen-age.”

Deputy Assistant Director Quinn said 292 children were rescued last year, and this year’s efforts are on track to exceed that total. “There are still images on the Internet of unidentified victims,” he said. “The biggest challenge is keeping up with the technology, especially the part of the Internet where the worst of the worst can try to anonymize themselves and try to hide.”

In fiscal year 2012, HSI special agents arrested a record number of child predators—1,655—on criminal charges related to child sexual exploitation. HSI arrested 1,335 predators in 2011 and 912 in 2010. In the first five months of fiscal year, 2013 (October 1, 2012, to March 1, 2013), there have been 800 criminal arrests.

One of the noteworthy efforts is Operation Sunflower, launched in November 2012. Special agents made 245 arrests and identified 123 victims in an international investigation aimed at rescuing victims and targeting those who own, trade, and produce child pornography.

Investigations of child pornography typically have an international aspect, Deputy Assistant Director Quinn said. These crimes are not only far flung; they are also huge in the number of victims and the volume of illegal materials. It’s not uncommon for special agents to seize hundreds of thousands or even a million images, still and video.

HSI conducts investigations undercover, engaging predators online and on a global scale. Special agents work with local law enforcement domestically and internationally. They receive thousands of tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, U.S. Internet service providers, and other entities, Unit Chief Redling said.

Computer forensics is a crucial part of investigations. More than 250 computer forensics special agents at C3 and across the nation work to extract and analyze data from digital devices. Often, one case generates hundreds of additional leads from messages on e-mail, bulletin boards, chat rooms, and other Internet venues, Deputy Assistant Director Quinn said.

Last year, the CEIU established the Victim Identification Program to gather data from images to advance investigations.

Specialists analyze background details of images, seeking clues to geographical location or identities of those depicted. Unit Chief Redling outlined typical content that could reveal clues: an ice cream cup on the counter, a prescription bottle, a TV commercial playing in the background, the language or the dialect spoken, a barcode on a box that could be enhanced and scanned to determine where that box came from.

“If we can lock down a geographical location where that victim may be, and we send that lead out to our 200 offices nationwide, and work with local law enforcement, in many cases, we can successfully rescue children who are actively being abused by violators who are trading images on the Internet,” Unit Chief Redling said. “That’s probably one of our most cutting-edge programs we have right now. It employs a lot of good old-fashioned police techniques as well.”

Virtual Global Task Force

Deputy Assistant Director Quinn’s new role as Chair of the VGT presents opportunities for new avenues of global collaboration. Founded in 2003, the VGT has member nations and organizations from regions that have high levels of expertise in computer forensics.

VGT has grown to 22 members, with Indonesia and South Korea as recent additions. The other governmental members are Australia, Canada, Europol, INTERPOL, Italy, New Zealand, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, and most recently, the Dutch National Police. Included among the 11 private-sector partners are: the payment processor PayPal, which conducts modeling to detect and remove accounts involved in child exploitation; the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit, dedicated to disrupting cybercrime threats; and numerous NGO’s committed to protecting children from sexual abuse.

Deputy Assistant Director Quinn mentioned three goals he has for the VGT:

  • Increasing the number of operations in which the VGT will be involved.
  • Increasing the number of private-sector and law-enforcement members who have an interest in this work.
  • Building capacity in countries that may not have experience in child-exploitation investigations or computer forensics.

“We will collaborate with the VGT countries that are skilled in these areas, and we will provide training to these non-VGT countries to increase their knowledge to conduct these investigations and to use technology to do the forensics,” Deputy Assistant Director Quinn said. “We have a lot of countries that are very interested in that.”


Tip line to report child exploitation:

  • Call 866.347.2423. Alternatively, use the e-mail reporting feature at ice.gov by clicking on “EMAIL” in the top right area of the page.

Virtual Global Task Force: virtualglobaltaskforce.com ABC Nightline report, “The Virgin Trade”:

  • http://abcnews.go.com/watch/nightline/SH5584743/VD55278875/nightline-0225-alleged-underage-prostitution-in-philippines


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