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ICE-developed app snares child-porn suspect

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It took just a day and a half for law enforcement to catch up with a fugitive wanted on drug and child pornography charges after information on the case was sent out via Immigration and Customs Enforcement's inaugural Operation Predator smartphone app.

FBI and ICE Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) agents arrested Mark Robert Austin on Sept. 13. ICE made him a poster child for its new agency-developed app for iPhones, developed to help find and prosecute child predators.

The app was the brainchild of Brian Hale, ICE’S assistant director of the Office of Public Affairs. Kevin Downey, web content manager in the office, did the development work. It has been a huge hit on iTunes. ICE HSI officials said it has been downloaded 60,000 times since it was introduced Sept. 12.

Austin had the bad luck of being one of eight fugitives outlined in the initial alert sent out via the app.

The calls came into the tip line, said ICE, after national and regional publicity generated by the app's announcement. ICE officials said "several members of the public" phoned in information about areas Austin was said to have frequented.

The swift success didn't come with a high price tag, though. The app was produced by ICE HSI public affairs IT personnel.

Downey developed the app on his own time, with the help of special agents from HSI's Cyber Crimes Center and field offices across the country. It cost all of $99 to put together, primarily for the Apple development software, Downey said, adding that he taught himself to develop in his spare time. The whole development and deployment process took about three months. Downey said he is working on an Android version and has to teach himself development for that platform.

The Operation Predator App enables those who download it to receive alerts about wanted predators, to share the information with friends via email and social media tools, and to provide information to HSI by calling or submitting an online tip. Additionally, the app enables users to view news about arrests and prosecutions of child predators and additional resources about ICE and its global partners in the fight against child exploitation.

Although the app draws most of its content, such as news and investigation updates, from ICE HSI's mobile web site, it does one critical thing that the mobile site can't do — push alerts out on demand, said Downey. That capability is crucial to distributing immediate information that may jar a case loose and lead to an arrest.

Federal agents had been looking for Austin since a federal court in Michigan issued an arrest warrant for him in August. At the time, HSI said it had little information about his exact whereabouts, but believed he was living in the southeastern part of the state. He was arrested without incident by HSI and FBI special agents along with officers from the Michigan State Police in the Flint, Mich., area after numerous tips from the public were called in to the ICE tip line.

He had been charged with allegedly downloading more than 100 images and nearly a dozen videos of child pornography. He is currently being held on state charges of distribution of marijuana, according to ICE. Additional details about the arrest are being withheld pending his initial appearance in federal court to answer to the child pornography charges, it said.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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Reader comments

Tue, Sep 17, 2013 DJHMcKinney

VERY NICE!!! Not every worthwhile project has to have a 2 year acquisition cycle, have a 5-year O&M plan and cost millions of dollars! Congratulations Kevin!

Tue, Sep 17, 2013 Marbran USA

While I applaud Mr. Hale and Mr. Downey for their initiative, I have to question the very public relationship this app has with ICE. To say that it only cost $99 is not entirely true, as there were undoubtedly hours spent by ICE IT employees to stage and place the app into production. ICE IT resources are being used and will continue to be used. So the question then becomes, under what mandate does ICE involve itself with this. Abducting child predators is the job of the FBI and state and local law enforcement. ICE is only concerned with our border protection and things related to that. Under our Constitution, Departments do not have the blanket authority to whatever it is they please, even if it is for good purposes. ICE is clearly outside the scope of its authority. Why was this not handed over to the FBI for release?

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