A dozen children in Canada have been rescued and nearly 50 people in Canada are facing more than 180 charges following an international online child sexual abuse investigation that started in New Zealand.
The RCMP's National Child Exploitation Crime Centre (NCECC) collaborated with the New Zealand Te Tari Taiwhenua Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) and Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) units across Canada on the still-ongoing operation, dubbed Operation H.
The investigation started in 2019 when an electronic service provider alerted authorities in New Zealand to thousands of files of child sexual abuse material. Investigators determined that more than 90,000 accounts worldwide had accessed the content. Investigators say the files included some of the most egregious abuse of infants and children that police had ever encountered.
The material depicts a crime scene. It depicts the worst moment of a child's life and every time it's viewed by an offender, that child is re-victimized," says Tim Houston, manager of the Digital Child Exploitation Team with the DIA and the lead on Operation H.
The DIA worked with its partners in New Zealand to prepare investigation packages to share with police agencies in other counties, including the RCMP. The DIA's work had to consider legal differences in each jurisdiction to help local investigators act upon the information.
The investigation is largest and most challenging child exploitation operation led out of New Zealand. Throughout the operation, Houston and his colleagues were available to provide support to investigators.
If they had any questions or needed key pieces of information, we could dig in and potentially assist with it," says Houston.
Co-ordinating in Canada
When the information arrived at the RCMP's NCECC, Cpl. Dawn Langevine and Cpl. Yany Marchand-Vigneault worked to prioritize, package, and share case information with ICE units across Canada. Many factors went into prioritizing the cases, such as looking for prolific and repeat offenders, identifying the worst cases and determining the resources available to each provincial or local ICE unit.
We were giving them more files than they would do in a year on top of the work they already have. The normal work never stops coming," says Marchand-Vigneault.
Langevine and Marchand-Vigneault assisted each ICE unit throughout their investigations often helping to secure judicial orders that are an important step in identifying offenders. "
You're never sure if a person is in Canada until you complete some investigative steps, says Marchand-Vigneault. "Investigators in the field had to do a lot of production orders to confirm the suspects were in Canada."
Investigators also had to deal with the challenges of investigating offenders who go to great lengths to conceal their identity and online activities using Virtual Private Networks, dark web networks, and other sophisticated computer techniques.
The ICE units could pick up the phone or send us an email and we would help find the answer, which gave them the time to focus on the investigation themselves," says Langevine, who recently transferred from the NCECC to the RCMP sexual assault review team.
In Canada, 25 police agencies were involved in the operation. While the scale of Operation H separates it from a typical online child exploitation investigation, it highlights that there's a global audience seeking out the illegal materials.
Child exploitation and the abuse of children isn't something that happens just in certain neighbourhoods or certain places. Everyone needs to be aware of that," says Langevine adding that it's important for parents to discuss online dangers with their kids.
Parents should be open to having conversations with the kids about internet safety and awareness, and parents need to be vigilant about their child's education and actions online," she says.
Across the globe, Operation H has resulted in more than 830 criminal investigations and helped save nearly 150 children from dangerous environments. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Australian Federal Police, the National Crime Agency in the United Kingdom, Europol and INTERPOL all supported the investigation in their respective jurisdictions.