Content warning: child abuse, sexual exploitation
Within the RCMP's National Child Exploitation Crime Centre (NCECC) there's a specialized group dedicated to identifying and safeguarding victims depicted in child sexual abuse material. Last year, the Victim Identification Unit helped Canadian investigators identify 396 victims in Canada. Cpl. Stephen Ludlow, a victim identification specialist, spoke with Gazette writer Travis Poland about his work.
Can you describe your work?
When the sexual abuse of a child is recorded, it's documenting a serious crime. Abusers often use the images for future sexual gratification, or to trade and share with other abusers. Victim identification specialists like me combine a number of methods including analyzing images and videos, using technical expertise, and traditional investigative methods to find and rescue victims of sexual crimes that are being depicted in the material. Because we don't know the identity of the offender, our approach is focused on identifying the victim so they can be saved from any further abuse.
Child sexual exploitation is a borderless crime and the abuse in an image or video could be happening anywhere in the world. We work closely with victim identification specialists around the globe to help narrow down where the child might be. Once a country is narrowed down, we continue working to find the province and city until the child can be rescued. We also work with our international counterparts to ensure clues that are typical in one country are not overlooked by another.
What drew you to working with this unit?
Earlier in my career, I had an opportunity to rescue a victim from the hands of a sexual offender as the crime was unfolding. The look of relief and gratitude in the victim's eyes never left me and motivates me to ensure other children can be saved from these abusive situations.
You work with more than 50 Internet Child Exploitation units across Canada. How does your team support other police agencies?
Despite our relatively small numbers, the RCMP Victim Identification Unit is recognized as a global leader in the field. While our main objective is to help investigators in Canada identify Canadian victims, we also play an international role. When a police agency identifies a victim as Canadian, they report it to us. We then update Interpol's Child Sexual Exploitation database with the information. This avoids duplication of effort and saves time by letting investigators know if materials have already been identified in another country.
We also offer a variety of image analysis and comparison services to help investigators advance their investigations. If a victim is suspected to be from Canada, we'll seek assistance from local police agencies to locate and rescue them.
How do you work with international policing partners?
Our collaboration depends a lot on databases and secure communications. But, given the nature of the analysis required to solve these cases, it's imperative to get victim identifications specialists in the same place to work together on complicated cases involving multiple countries. Twice a year our unit travels to Europol Headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands, as part of Europol's Victim Identification Task Force to work together on new and unsolved cases. We also collaborate with more than 60 countries connected to Interpol's Child Sexual Exploitation database, which helps identify an average of seven victims every day.
How do you use technology in your work?
Technology is an absolute necessity. This type of crime has evolved from printed images to digital ones on online platforms that allow them to be spread exponentially. Offenders use technology to commit these crimes and we as police must continuously adapt.
As well, we often deal with large quantities of media that contain very little detail. Using technology that allows us to analyze large amounts of media quickly and look for clues that might otherwise go unnoticed is very important to helping us quickly identify victims. Furthermore, secure technology that allows collaboration with victim identification specialists around the world is the backbone of our work to identify and rescue children.
What challenges do you have and how do you overcome them?
Child exploitation investigators carry a heavy burden when they witness these crimes over and over and sometimes don't have enough information to identify victims. There are children in Canada who, every day and every night, wait and pray for someone to rescue them from the suffering. We have an obligation to find the appropriate use of emerging technologies to advance the efforts of rescuing these victims.
When we talk about child sexual abuse material — referred to as child pornography in the Criminal Code of Canada — it includes the abuse of young children and even babies. The younger the victim, the less likely the crime gets reported. So, police must work to overcome challenges faced by evolving technology, advancements in the ability of offenders to remain anonymous, and the ever-growing prevalence of online platforms where offenders can amass a large number of victims.