When the 6-year-old son of John and Revé Walsh was abducted from a mall in Hollywood, Florida, 38 years ago, America had few tools for getting children like Adam home. We had search parties, word of mouth, and maybe a mention on the evening news but no coordinated national response.
Since then, we’ve made remarkable progress and have many more resources available — AMBER Alerts, forensic age progressions, social media, biometrics, PhotoDNA, rapid response teams, aerial and topographical mapping. A missing child today has a much greater chance of coming home safe than he or she did nearly four decades ago.
Yet despite that progress, those of us who have dedicated our careers to finding missing and sexually exploited children know we always need to stay a step ahead of evolving crimes. And, as crimes against children have shifted to the internet, law enforcement is locked in a technological arms race with those who would abuse children.
Right now, law enforcement is lagging far behind.
To be clear, we’ve made great strides. At the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), a nonprofit organization, we work with an array of technology partners to better assist law enforcement and combat the new technological tactics employed by people who sexually exploit children. But law enforcement desperately needs more resources, more personnel and more training.
A recent survey by Cellebrite, the standard bearer for smart phones and cellular technology — and with whom NCMEC has a technology partnership — shows the extent of the problem. Crimes are both committed and solved online now — 91 percent of detectives said they “very frequently” or “frequently” used evidence from cellphones. Another 54 percent said the same about computers. CCTV and wearables (such as Fitbits) were also major sources of evidence.
The problem is that all these devices produce mountains of data and only a small portion of it is relevant to any crime. A typical 128 GB phone, for instance, has the equivalent of 33 million pages of data. Even when investigators know exactly what they’re looking for, going through that much data is incredibly time-consuming. According to the survey, investigators in America spend about 36 hours a week going through digital data.
As a result, 81 percent of law enforcement agencies report a case backlog that is at least a month long, and the average backlog is three months, according to the survey. Time is critical when searching for missing and sexually exploited children.
The anonymity and global nature of the internet has created a relatively safe haven for those who sexually exploit children. In 2018 alone, NCMEC’s CyberTipline received more than 18.4 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation, the vast majority comprising sexual abuse images and videos of children.
We’re also seeing more reports of online enticement, which coincides with reductions we’re seeing in physical abductions of children, a glaring example that changes in criminal behavior are driven in large part by technology. Social media have become the playground or bus stop that offenders are using to contact and sexually victimize children. The unfortunate reality is that offenders have now moved right into living rooms and our children’s bedrooms to seek victims.
How can law enforcement keep pace? We need more cops with expertise in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Given the overall shortage of law enforcement officers and STEM workers nationwide, this is going to be a tall order.
Worldwide, just 40 percent of police think their department’s approach is up to the task of meeting the ever-changing challenges of today’s technology, according to a report from Accenture. But we must do whatever it takes — and, yes, that means paying people with special skills more to become cops and providing access to technologies that make them more efficient. We also need to find incentives to retain them.
Adam’s abduction had the worst possible outcome. Yet, his murder led to enormous change. Americans learned the horrible truth about missing children and established systems that have since saved thousands of other kids. Thirty-five years ago, Adam’s parents co-founded NCMEC, which has helped law enforcement recover more than 290,000 missing children. Adam didn’t die in vain.
Now, we must make the necessary investments to keep children safe, to keep law enforcement one step ahead of the people who want to harm kids. And no child should suffer to teach us the lesson.
Robert Lowery Jr. is vice president of the Missing Children Division of The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. He is a former commander of the greater St. Louis Major Crimes Squad.