Cathal Delaney: Project “Trace an Object” – details help the police identify children

Cathal Delaney: Project “Trace an Object” – details help the police identify children
13 August, 2019 Guest Writer
In Child protection, Technology

Project “Trace an Object” – details help the police identify children

Identifying and rescuing children from dangerous and harmful situations is the primary concern in child sexual abuse investigations. The material itself provides clues to who the children are, where the abuse happened; helping investigators work backwards to identify and rescue children. To aid the search for children Europol has set up project “Trace an Object”. It asks the public to view cropped parts of images to see if they recognise objects. This can help place the location of the abuse. In this last extract from the NetClean Report 2018, we look again at how technology is a panacea and a tool for a brighter future for children.

By Cathal Delaney, Head of Team, Analysis Project Twins, EC3, Europol

Encryption is becoming more widely used by the public at large, and this echoes the trend that we see in child sexual abuse investigations. It is more difficult to say something certain about the manipulation of images or obfuscation techniques. While these techniques are currently not used in the majority of investigations that we work on, this does not necessarily mean that the use of them is not increasing. What we can say is that the more technologically sophisticated offenders, who are also taking other security measures to hide their identity, are the ones that also use these technologies.

Images of specific objects

There is always a question as to how much information we should share about these techniques, as it highlights the importance of details in images in victim identification work. However, in the project “Trace an Object” we have opted to ask the public for help to identify objects or locations in images where we have exhausted all other ways of investigation, to help us find the children depicted in the images.

At www.europol.europa.eu/stopchildabuse we share images of specific objects and specify what information we are seeking for that particular object or location.

People can, anonymously if they wish, send in information about the objects to the site. The tips are then dealt with by Europol’s victim identification team, who pass credible leads on to the country to which the object appears to refer to. There it becomes the responsibility of the police authorities to decide whether to develop an investigation or not.

“We have asked for the public’s assistance with 145 different objects, and as a result one offender has been arrested and eight children have been rescued.”

Eight children have been identified

“Trace an Object” has been up for eighteen months now, and we have seen good results. We have asked for the public’s assistance with 145 different objects, and as a result one offender has been arrested and eight children have been rescued. These are eight children that we would not have found without this project and the assistance of the public.

We invest a lot of time and effort to ensure that the project and site are working as intended. We only use this possibility when we have already followed all other possible leads to identify a child in an image. Before posting an image on the site, we follow a structured process with internal procedures as well as permissions from the police authority in the country that is in charge of the investigation. We also notify other police authorities to give them a chance to solve the case before we post the image.

The public input is much appreciated

The response to this project has been very positive, and we are grateful for the traction that “Trace an Object” has had, as it has generated many qualitative tips. We intend to build on this success and hope to see more identified children as a result.

Europol and European Cybercrime Centre (EC3)

Europol assists the 28 EU Member States in their fight against serious international crime and terrorism. Europol set up the European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) in 2013 to strengthen the law enforcement response to cybercrime in the EU and help protect European citizens, businesses and governments from online crime.