The Saskatchewan police officers who target online sexual predators say they’re being driven to use a range of investigative methods in order to slow down a problem that’s seen a dramatic increase.
Over the past five years their caseload has more than doubled.
“There’s just not enough time in the day to get to every file and some of them have to be put on the backburner until we have a lull,” said Scott Lambie, the staff sergeant in charge of the Internet Child Exploitation Unit (ICE).
He said he and the 10 officers who work with him feel like they’re using a teacup to empty a swimming pool.
“Each officer is basically doing twice the work that they were doing when the unit started,” said Lambie.
In 2013, the Sask. ICE unit opened 192 new files. In 2018, it opened almost 400.
There are similar units in every province and they are also seeing rapid growth in investigative files. In 2017, Statistics Canada released a report which showed child pornography offences had increased by 233 per cent over the decade. Experts attribute that growth to new technology which has enabled offenders to easily record, upload and distribute child pornography online.
“There’s lots of files that we could be working on but the resources sort of limit of what we can go after,” Lambie said.
He said a file jumps to the top of the list if a child appears to be in imminent danger.
For example, police learned within the past three weeks about a sexualized video of a naked nine-year-old Saskatchewan girl posted on Youtube. Lambie said now they have to figure out who’s responsible.
“There’s only two really two routes for it to get posted on YouTube,” he said. “There’s a third-party offender involved or the child self-exploited and did it herself.”
Lambie said that as horrific as it sounds, clips being posted to YouTube “isn’t uncommon.”
And he said that’s why police are using every tool available to crack down.
1. Undercover investigations 24/7
Last week, CBC’s iTeam highlighted an example of an undercover operation run by ICE.
One of Lambie’s male officers posed as a 15-year-old girl named Aurora and responded to an online ad posted by 57-year-old Rodney Barras. After three weeks of texting back and forth, police had enough evidence to pursue charges against Barras.
Lambie said these sorts of investigations are not nine-to-five. Officers take their investigative tools home and sometimes even text their targets while at home with their own children.
At other times, officers will join online chat groups or social media apps, attempting to make personal connections with people sharing child pornography.
“The internet is all about anonymity. Who we’re talking to doesn’t really know who we are as well as we don’t really know who they are,” Lambie said.
Lambie said diving into this world is “a really creepy part of the job” but it’s necessary in order to find people who cloak themselves in secrecy.
In some cases, police have struck a goldmine when “they’ve managed to acquire a lot of contact information from this person’s devices and share that across the world with the other police agencies.”
Lambie said many investigations require a massive amount of time.
In one extreme recent case, they arrested a man with a collection of 24 million images and videos.
Police suspected he may have been creating child porn, so they had to divide the images up between every officer in the unit and comb through them one-by-one.
2. Facebook helps catch pedophiles
Lambie said his unit receives a steady stream of solid tips from south of the border.
U.S. law requires internet service providers and social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube to report any instances of child pornography being shared through their services.
“They report that to their National Center (for Missing & Exploited Children) in the United States who funnels it up to Canada and eventually to the ICE unit where the offense is believed to have occurred,” he said.
He said this process used to take months but now things move at an astonishing pace. He said if someone were to share child pornography through Facebook today “they can get it up to our desks from the U.S. within a week.”
Lambie said Saskatchewan receives 250-300 of these tips every year “and by the time it gets to us, it’s an investigative file … It’s got child pornography in it already identified by somebody down the line.” The U.S.-based NCMEC passes on similar tips for provinces across Canada and countries around the world.
Lambie’s officers can then go to court and ask a judge for permission to learn the name and address of the person behind the IP address who shared that pornographic image.
Then the tough police work begins.
“Whether that leads to charges at the end of the day, we have to look at the totality of the evidence.”
3. Live monitoring shows thousands sharing child porn
Thousands of people in Saskatchewan and across Canada are sharing child pornography right now. Police have the tools to watch them do it and target them for arrest.
These images are commonly shared through what is known as peer-to-peer software. These programs allow people to share files around the world from a publicly-accessible folder on their own computer.
Lambie said because those folders are public, police are able to look inside and compare the contents to a massive database of every image or video of child pornography ever identified by law enforcement around the globe.
Lambie explained that every image contains it’s own “hash value” or “DNA footprint.”
“If that image is shared or that video was shared that hash value was known because of this library.”
Lambie said the software shows a map of the province and flags every computer in the province that is sharing known child pornography. He said there are thousands of them and each case could legitimately be investigated by police, but because of the sheer volume, the software also flags the top ten offenders.
“We just try to hit the top ones off the list and work our way down trying to reduce the availability of it to other people around the world.”
Lambie said once they find an address for a potential offender, that can lead to uncomfortable conversations.
“Six people in the home — all of them are hooked on to the internet. Which one is actually committing the crime?”
He said through their investigation they can usually figure out which device was used to share the images but ultimately, police have to knock on the door.
He said that often begins a series of “life-altering” conversations.
“The ‘not-involved’ parties don’t have a clue what’s going on. Only the suspect really knows what’s going on,” he said. “It’s very difficult for a spouse to then have to admit to their other spouse that yes it’s me.”
In virtually every situation that “spouse” is a man. Lambie could only recall one case where a female was a suspect.
He said sometimes, officers are surprised by the response.
“Recently, we went through a door and the guy said yes you got me I did it … Take me away.”
In other cases, people aggressively deny doing anything wrong. Lambie said some of them have worked hard to cover their tracks. He referenced one frustrating case.
“We thought we had him dead to rights and we knocked on the door, do the search, gather all the digital evidence and after we analyze it there’s nothing there,” Lambie recalled. “We know how they did it but we just couldn’t find the artifact evidence to prove that they did it.”
4. Teens targeted through social media
Lambie said one of his greatest concerns is the increase of teens being targeted for abuse and sexual extortion through social media.
He said every week he hears another story of a teen, usually a girl, who shared nude images of herself with someone online and is now in a crisis.
“Those are mostly through the walk-ins where the mom or the parent has finally been told by the child that this is actually going on. Now they’re scared. What do I do now?”
He estimated this happens about 10 times a month in Saskatchewan.
Lambie said that most social media apps that teens use like Snapchat, Messenger, Kik or Instagram can be infiltrated by men looking to exploit children who are often easy targets.
He said online predators are savvy and often several steps ahead of their target. They start by making the teen think they are friends and then pour on the flattery.
“The pedophile just makes the female feel great about themselves,” he said.
Then, the requests begin.
“They start by getting them to just send some basic pictures and then it’s topless pictures and then it’s panty pictures and then it’s naked pictures,” Lambie said.
“Before you know it they’re threatening the child to expose them to their their friends on Facebook to family members and the child gets scared and then they’re stuck in this whole sextortion.”
He said once those images have been shared they quickly move around the world and can haunt the teen for years.
He said it’s up to parents to be aware that pedophiles are hunting their children.
“The parents should be aware of what their children are doing with their phone or their computer or any online application,” he said.
He said parents need to check their children’s “friends” list on social media app and ask their kids if they have personally met them or just interacted online. He said many predators hide behind fake profiles.
When asked for his best advice to parents he replied quickly.
“Take phones away from kids.”