Officials: Mobile lab to speed child-exploitation crackdown

State News

Zeus Flores, right, a digital forensic examiner for the Illinois attorney general’s office and part of the Internet Crimes Against Children task force, explains to Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul the components of the newly acquired mobile forensic unit purchased with a $174,000 federal grant in this Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, photo, in Springfield, Ill. Flores says the van allows investigators to confiscate suspected computer contraband and instead of analyzing it in the alleged perpetrator’s home, review it in safety and privacy with added speed and efficiency. (AP Photo/John O’Connor)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois and federal officials on Monday unveiled a mobile unit that they say will add speed and efficiency to digital investigations of child pornography and exploitation at a time when young people are using the internet more than ever before.

The gray van is assigned to the Internet Crimes Against Children task force, said Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, whose office oversees the group and its increasing caseload. Tips about alleged exploitation received by the task force increased by 118% from 2017 to 2020 and are on pace to jump another 23% this year.

“Child predators are actively trolling the internet, trading, selling and collecting images of the most vile sexual acts involving children,” Raoul said. Other predators log on to appear to innocently befriend young people, he said, then lure them to meet-ups for sex.

Raoul touted tutorials his office developed for schools and parents, which have gone from being conducted in-person to online since the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic also had the added effect of keeping families home and kids in front of screens.

“A parent’s eyes light up when they start thinking about this,” Raoul said. “They do believe that when their kid is in their room on a computer or playing a video game that they’re extremely safe. They don’t think about the vulnerabilities that are associated with it.”

The mobile unit is funded by a $174,000 federal grant and outfitted with amenities such as a tool that allows investigators to download information from a suspect’s electronic device in a read-only format. That’s critical when evidence is introduced in court because a defendant can raise doubt about someone tinkering with what was found.

Additionally, the mobile unit affords privacy for such sensitive work — not to mention safety, said Zeus Flores, a digital forensic examiner for the task force. Instead of having to work in what could be squalid conditions — “some of the homes we’re going into are frankly biohazardous,” Flores said — the mobile unit will be a centralized laboratory.

“It’s a very dynamic scene,” Flores said. “Investigators are trying to talk to subjects, trying to find out what they know and we’re trying to provide them intelligence so they are armed with the proper information. It gives us an opportunity to triage the devices — and we’re not, for example, taking a child’s laptop who needs it for their homework. We can look it over, exclude it, and give it right back.”

Raoul’s office said the task force has been involved in the arrests of more than 1,780 alleged predators since 2006, the year the Justice Department ordered states to begin maintaining statistics on such cases.

Last week, Raoul said, state and federal prosecutors obtained a conviction in Peoria of a man who traveled to Kankakee County to have sex with who he thought was a 14-year-old child but who was actually an investigator. The task force’s cooperation with the Winnebago County state’s attorney led to recent charges of possession of child pornography against a Rockford police officer.

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