The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s Child Exploitation Investigations lab agents scour disturbing photos and videos of child sexual abuse, seeking unlikely clues that help them identify the children and bring their abusers to justice. In one case, it was the loud, persistent chirping of a bird. Another time, it was unusual playground equipment. “We are looking at the hidden details, the things people aren’t looking at,” said agent Erin Burke. Agents’ work has led to thousands of child exploitation arrests. Funding for the work dropped as a greater share of ICE’s budget is devoted to removing immigrants, the Associated Press reports.
ICE’s involvement in child pornography investigations dates to when hard-copy images were traded over borders. Now it’s all online. Investigators around the globe can’t keep pace with the tens of millions of graphic materials available today. It’s exploded in part because of cheaper online storage and easier encryption tools. The dark web gives additional cover to perpetrators. It has made them bolder, their abuse more graphic and disturbing, the work of the investigators more difficult. The lab was created in 2011 to look for clues within images to help find child victims. It has three analysts and one special agent. They work in a small windowless room in a nondescript office building in the Virginia suburbs outside Washington, D.C. A sign on the door says in red bold letters: “Examination of graphic material in progress.” Inside, new technology meets old: Fluorescent office lights are turned down and specialized blue lights glow. Giant computers with high-definition screens are set up beside old police sketches of faces. In the year ending Sept. 30, agents initiated 4,224 child exploitation cases that resulted in 3,771 arrests and identification of 1,066 victims.