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AI-Powered Task Forces Tackle Online Child Exploitation

AI is emerging as a critical tool to sort through record-breaking amounts of digital evidence in the fight against the online exploitation of children and teens.

A person wearing a black hoodie, with the hood up, with their back to the camera standing in front of rows of green code on a black background.
In what the FBI has deemed a global crisis, an “explosion” of cyber crimes targeting children and teens tragically resulted in the loss of over a dozen young people to suicide at the start of 2023.

Now, a group of public-private task forces composed of local, state and federal agencies are harnessing the power of artificial intelligence and cloud storage to find and stop predators from victimizing underage users online.

In 2022, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received more than 32 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation, a nearly 50 percent increase from 2020. According to the nonprofit, reports of online enticement cases have skyrocketed. The organization attributes the rise to a virtual crime called financial sextortion.
Sextortion occurs when a criminal engages with a victim online, often posing as a peer to win their trust and coerce them into sending explicit images online. Once the images are sent, the criminal will extort their victims for additional explicit material or money, threatening to share explicit photos with the child’s family, friends or others.


Jim Cole, a retired special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, serves as the Chief of Law Enforcement Enterprise and Technology for Operation Light Shine. The nonprofit creates, funds, develops and equips regional Interagency Child Exploitation and Persons Trafficking (INTERCEPT) task forces.

The goal of Operation Light Shine is to provide financial, technical and other resources to help bridge funding gaps for law enforcement to end sexual exploitation of children. The nonprofit has helped create five regional public-private partnerships in the United States, including in Frederick County, Md., southwest Florida, northeast Florida, Tennessee and Virginia.

Operation Light Shine equips local and state investigators with command centers paired with technology, training and investigative equipment. Emerging tech has played a big role in helping the agencies handle massive amounts of digital evidence.

Cole pointed to a recent sextortion investigation he assisted on in the Nashville area. The suspect had used Instagram to find vulnerable victims and communicate with them on multiple profiles. When investigators filed a search warrant, the result was overwhelming.

“For his primary profile, the return was a PDF document that was 57,000 pages or more,” said Cole. “I would challenge anyone, on any system, to try to open a 57,000-page PDF. It’s nearly impossible. We have to find a way to open it, because we can’t open it in Adobe Acrobat, it just won’t do it.”

Challenges processing and analyzing digital evidence are common as more investigators turn to social media platforms to conduct investigations.
Legal process requests from United States government agencies to Meta have more than quadrupled in less than 10 years, rising from under 15,000 requests in 2014 to more than 60,000 in the last half of 2022, according to Meta’s most recent transparency report. Meta is also more likely to provide government agencies with at least some of the requested data than they were in 2014 — they hand over information to authorities for nearly nine out of every 10 requests.


To manage data challenges, Operation Light Shine powers INTERCEPT teams with technology from Pathfinder Labs, a private vendor that provides document and media analysis, investigative training, communication analysis and other services to teams investigating online crimes. Pathfinder Labs uses MongoDB’s Atlas document database to aggregate massive files of data into a central database, called Paradigm, with cloud storage, allowing it to be sharable and searchable.

Cole said the combination of AI technology and cloud storage capability puts important information in investigators’ hands quickly.

“It uses artificial intelligence to say, ‘Based on the way that AI has been trained, I recognize that these were the sessions that meet the kinds of criteria that’s important to you, I’m going to highlight these and put these to the top, that’s probably where you should be more focused,’” said Cole. “From an investigative intelligence standpoint, it’s incredibly valuable and incredibly efficient, versus the manual ways you’d have to go through all of that data. It allows us to be more efficient, allows us to catch more offenders and allows us to rescue our kids.”

The technology also uses natural language processing to highlight email addresses, phone numbers, and language patterns that could be exploitative in nature. Cole added that although many law enforcement agencies may be hesitant to consider using cloud computing for their investigative evidence, it can be a game changer.

“The amount of data that we’re having to deal with in these cases, bare metal shelves are not scalable,” said Cole. “It’s more cost effective, in most cases, and more secure in most cases than trying to manage your own data file.”

The INTERCEPT task forces are producing results. In June, an investigation by the northeast Florida chapter resulted in the conviction of two men for child sexual exploitation. The case involved more than 2,100 videos and 600 photos stored on several electronic devices.
Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for Government Technology. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey, Calif.