Taking cyber predators to task

Whether it's soliciting sex from minors or distributing child pornography,

crimes against children have risen as Internet usage has soared.

To keep pace with the problem, the federal government, in conjunction

with state and local law enforcement agencies, has established task forces

geared toward investigating crimes, training personnel and reaching out

to the community.

That effort, coupled with advances in technology, such as a secure portal

to exchange extremely sensitive information, may help stem the increasing

tide of such incidents, officials said.

Leading the high-tech crackdown are the Internet Crimes Against Children

(ICAC) task forces, regional programs funded by the Justice Department.

Justice launched the task force project after then-FBI Director Louis

Freeh and Ernest Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and

Exploited Children (NCMEC), testified in Congress that state and local law

enforcement agencies needed to be enlisted in the fight.

Congress provided $2.3 million in special appropriations to create what

amounted to "law enforcement cyber units," said Ron Laney, director of the

child protection division at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency

Programs, which oversees the ICAC task force program.

Every year since then, the government has increased funding to create

and sustain the ICAC task forces. This year, funding grew to $6.5 million,

Laney said, adding that the Bush administration's proposal for the next

fiscal year is $12.5 million. Thirty task forces have been set up nationwide.

Another six have been proposed for development by the end of the year and

possibly another four or five next spring, he added.

The task forces not only investigate Internet crimes but also help train

and provide technical assistance to other state and local law enforcement

agencies.

"The issues of child exploitation are exploding and getting bigger,"

said Ruben Rodriguez, director of NCMEC's exploited child unit. "More individuals

are using the Internet to entice children to disseminate illegal content,

child pornography. Obviously, this communication medium is facilitating

the exploitation of the world's children."

The exploited child unit acts as a resource center and provides leads

for federal agencies, such as the FBI, the Customs Service and the U.S.

Postal Service, state and local task forces and other agencies through a

cyber hot line.

The ICAC board of directors, which is composed of the leaders of each

of the task forces and other participating groups, recently began testing

a new secure Web portal called the Law Enforcement Data Exchange, or LEDX.

LEDX is designed to enable task forces and other agencies to securely

share sensitive information about investigations, training practices and

educational tools for parents and children. The system also has a high-level

search engine that can provide law enforcement officers with excerpts or

specific information on an individual, such as aliases.

Integrated Digital Systems/ScanAmerica Inc. is absorbing ongoing expenses,

including design fees, to keep the site running. The company also provides

LEDX members with Incident Document Management Software Edge 3.0, a case

file management system and a way for agencies to transfer paper records

and files to LEDX.

Besides ease of use and better information sharing, the system can eliminate

the mishandling of extremely sensitive and graphic case material.

"We had people go ahead and FedEx us cases, which is pretty standard,"

said Capt. Rick Wiita of the Bedford County Sheriff's Office in Virginia.

"And the next thing you know, the secretary two doors down gets the package,

opens it on up. They open up images of child pornography and our evidence.

OK, so what happens to our chain of evidence now? It's contaminated. It

happened one time. It was a nightmare. We didn't want it ever to happen

[again]."

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