It’s Time To Really Talk About Dealing With Child Exploitation



By Elliott Anderson, Chief Technical Officer, ShadowDragon

In the early days of the internet, before it became as graphic and visual as it is today, law enforcement had a much different experience pursuing criminals online. Most online crime was driven by a small U.S./European-based community, and for the most part, the bad guys only had access to the internet in designated locations, such as an office or home address - it wasn’t “portable” yet. And it certainly didn’t yet relate to national security.

As messengers and chat rooms started popping up, it was still fairly straightforward to target criminals by following suspicious IP addresses, for example. But the world got flatter and smaller as the internet evolved. Today, users can be anywhere in the world, grab a SIM card and have immediate internet access. As a result, the nature of crime - specifically crimes of child exploitation - exploded globally and became a completely online operation with new obstacles for solving cases.

More child exploitation content, including child sexual abuse materials (CSAM), has been created in the last five years than ever before, and it will continue to snowball as more producers enter the mix and as child exploitation remains profitable due to limited consequences. Just one look at this fact sheet from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) highlights that it’s time to examine what we are collectively doing (and not doing) about child exploitation as we head into the rest of 2023.


We need to actually talk about child exploitation

As stated previously by the Department Of Justice, “child exploitation is one of the most reprehensible and destructive offenses confronting America today. It harms the safety and well-being of our young people; it devastates our families and communities; and it degrades our strength as a nation of laws and civic security.” Despite its explosive growth, child exploitation is seemingly a realm of crime that no one wants to deal with.

The issue isn’t necessarily that law enforcement or the intelligence community doesn't want to address it - there are many teams of people operating out there, working tirelessly to take down the people creating child exploitation material. But in a lot of cases, law enforcement, or the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) for example, can’t deal with it.

Look at it this way: it’s one thing when a SWAT team can bust down a door, grab a guy that's trafficking a young girl in their city and put them behind bars. But what can they do if they find a site on the dark web advertising material of child sexual abuse? Or even more challenging, completely out in the open on sites like Twitter. Law enforcement teams absolutely want to shut this down, but they simply don’t have the knowledge or budget to analyze the threat - and that has always been the root of the problem.


Knowledge is power

According to the 2023 National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention & Interdiction, combating child exploitation cannot be done by the DOJ or the U.S. government alone - it requires a whole-of-society strategic response, and that starts with education. And if we really want to rally around this issue, we will need to raise awareness from the law enforcement level, all the way to the general public.  

Law enforcement and the intelligence community could brush up on their cyber skills, specifically their open-source intelligence (OSINT) skills. If they are better equipped with the knowledge and tools needed to leverage this ever-growing field of publicly available information (PAI) online, they will feel more empowered and confident in their ability to track down the producers of this material. In fact, some departments already have teams that are skilled with OSINT, including NYPD and LAPD, but they primarily use these resources to track down gangs and drug traffickers.

Then comes educating the general population on where, how and why this is happening. Once people understand the magnitude of child exploitation, I believe they will be more willing to lower funding in other areas, like the war on drugs, to create a task force that tackles these cases. Think about it - what other issue is so incredibly non partisan? Protecting children from all forms of exploitation is a rallying point for practically every walk of life.


As awareness rises, so will the funds

Towards the end of 2022, the UN established November 18 as the World Day for the Prevention of and Healing from Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Violence. This was a great first step in raising global awareness, but as we approach the second annual acknowledgement of this day in 2023, the U.S. funds are still lacking. In fact, the budget dedicated to ending child exploitation is about half of a percent of what we spend on drug enforcement, and I believe there are a few contributing factors.

For starters, the nature of the material is incredibly disturbing and depressing, so much so that the average person really won’t be able to handle it. The analysts and law enforcement I've met that can deal with this content are a different breed, and they never stop working. They're always plugged in, and that's only a part of the problem.

To build a task force dedicated to child exploitation, you would have to find about 200 people who are not only willing to sift through the content on a computer all day, but who also understand encryption and OSINT. A lot of the departments that deal with these kinds of cases are composed of OSINT teams devoted to chasing down runaway kids, but they are researching the more tangible and local aspects of the industry. For instance, they may track down U.S. consumers who are downloading illegal materials and arrest them, but that isn’t really solving the greater problem - those kids are still facing abuse at the hands of the producers.

With all of that being said, we're never going to be able to put a task force together or allocate enough money to a budget if people don't care. For now, it's really just a matter of bringing awareness to how extensive this issue is. Some of the advocates and survivors paint a fantastic picture of what this world looks like, and if given a platform, their stories could have the power to draw awareness at a larger scale.