SEATTLE — A fundraising effort is aiming to equip the Washington Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC) with three new pieces of software investigators say will help them catch more online predators.
The software would be able to look through huge amounts of data and flag photos which are likely child sexual abuse material, and also help identify those photos and videos which are already known to people who investigate child predators. The technology can blur out sections of photos and videos, reducing the emotional burden on detectives who look at them.
Washington’s task force is headed up by the ICAC division of the Seattle Police Department (SPD), which helps agencies around the state investigate tips about online crimes. SPD has an existing version of this technology, but the newer software adds critical features and would allow detectives to investigate these crimes more quickly. It would open up access to agencies statewide.
A five-year license for the software will cost $5 million.
Despite the high cost, representatives said Thursday a spike in online crimes against children means the need is more urgent than ever.
“Currently this is not in any city, state or federal budget, and it won’t be in the near future, but we cannot stand by and watch more children be victimized online,” said Cherie Skager with the Seattle Police Foundation, the organization that’s spearheading the fundraising effort to secure the technology for ICAC.
Skager made a plea to area-residents who have profited off of Seattle’s booming tech industry. “We’re asking them to please join us in making meaningful contributions to this fundraising and bring this technology home to our state.”
Representatives from SPD’s ICAC division explained that online crimes against children have skyrocketed since the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when children were forced to stay indoors and more of them were online than ever. Detective Daljit Gill called the early pandemic years a “target rich environment.”
“Every day new apps get released,” said Gill, “there are new ways for contacting our children, and predators are going to find them.”
Gill has been with SPD’s ICAC unit for nine years. She described the huge amounts of data that detectives must comb through when they’re building a case against an online predator. Sometimes investigators have to sift through hundreds of thousands of images criminals have stored over a period of years.
“We’re seizing 40, 50 computers, cellphones, thumbdrives, micro SDs,” Gill said.
“For me (this technology) is a no-brainer,” she continued.
ICAC hopes the software will help work through a large backlog in cases. Data from the state taskforce shows that the number of child enticement cases has increased by 76% between 2022 and 2023. Sgt. Shawn Martinell who supervises Seattle’s ICAC division and forwards cyber tips to relevant agencies around the state said they receive between 1,100 and 1,600 cyber tips per month to process through, up from an average of 200 in 2020. Case referrals from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children have more than doubled since 2019.