The average household had just one computer back in 2008 and even then, lawmakers recognized the need to protect children online. Today, the average household boasts 21.1 internet-capable devices. The data is endless and the opportunities to exploit children grow by the day. In towns and cities across the country, dedicated law enforcement professionals are investigating crimes against children, including internet crimes against children (ICAC) – a grueling and taxing task.

“Funding for investigative technology has not kept pace with device and data growth, leading to a significant resource gap,” says John Pizzuro, CEO of Raven, a non-profit dedicated to getting more resources in the hands of law enforcement who investigate internet crimes against children. Raven is a key partner of Cellebrite’s Operation Find Them All.

All 61 Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Forces in the United States face significant challenges, particularly in funding and public awareness. Each state has at least one ICAC Task Force with larger states having multiple task forces based on geographic area. “Despite lawmakers authorizing $60 million in annual funding through the Protect Our Children Act of 2008, the task forces who physically do the work of investigating the cases that come their way, have never received more than $32.9 million in appropriations,” explains Pizzuro.

This fiscal shortfall Pizzuro describes, coupled with a rapidly increasing number of internet-capable devices, severely hampers ICAC task forces’ ability to do their best work. “The ICAC Task Force struggles to keep up with the increasing volume of cybertips and investigations due to this outdated funding model,” says Debbie Garner, a former Georgia ICAC commander and investigator and Raven Founding Board Member.

The Funding Crisis

The outlook for fiscal year 2024 is even grimmer, with an expected reduction in funding for ICAC task forces. This discrepancy between authorized and appropriated funds has prompted Raven to secure earmarks, specifically community-directed funding, to help the task forces purchase essential investigative technology. These earmark efforts allow the non-profit to support nine ICAC units, leaving many without the necessary resources to manage their caseloads effectively. If additional funding is secured, the goal is for Raven to hire dedicated personnel to secure more federal funding for all 61 task forces.

Public and Legislative Awareness

One of the most significant hurdles is the lack of public and legislative understanding of the ICAC Task Force’s role and needs. Many lawmakers confuse the roles of various agencies involved in combating child exploitation. NCMEC acts as a conduit and clearinghouse, receiving reports from internet service providers and the public – dispatching each tip to the appropriate task forces for investigation.

ICAC Task Forces handle most of the state and local investigations yet receive the least amount of funding.

“Educating lawmakers and the public about these distinctions is crucial for securing the necessary support and resources,” Pizzuro says.

Legislative Reforms

To address these challenges, several legislative initiatives are in the works. The “Protect Our Children Act” aims to mandate that ICAC have discretionary power to target the most egregious offenders from the tips that come in.

Additionally, the “STOP CSAM” bill seeks to improve the quality of tips from tech providers by enforcing data uniformity, which will enhance the accuracy and efficiency of investigations.

The recently passed REPORT Act, which Raven helped facilitate and rallied for its passage alongside organizations like NCMEC, requires online platforms to report CSAM and extends the retention period for to maintain CSAM records from six months to a year, giving law enforcement the necessary time to build a case. This act also modernizes the process for submitting and managing CSAM in cloud environments, instead of snail mail, allowing for better victim identification and creating law enforcement efficiency.

Bridging the Technology and Legislative Gap

“Raven likes to take a proactive approach to drafting legislation, designed to address potential future challenges posed by artificial intelligence (AI) in child exploitation,” said Pizzuro. For instance, current federal law covers AI under obscenity regulations, and Raven is working to ensure that using AI to create or distribute CSAM results in sex offender registry inclusion. This forward-thinking strategy aims to close loopholes before they can be exploited.

Additionally, the SHIELD Act, which addresses harmful imaging such as revenge porn, and the Artificial Intelligence and Child Exploitation Experts Commissions Act of 2024 are vital legislative efforts supported by Raven.

“These efforts aim to create a commission to provide expert recommendations on AI’s role in child exploitation, ensuring that robust guardrails are in place,” Garner says.

Supporting ICAC Task Forces

The collaborative efforts of organizations like Raven and the commitment of lawmakers are crucial in this ongoing fight to safeguard our children’s future, particularly through technology. Cellebrite is proud to partner with Raven through in their efforts, as Cellebrite’s technology is regularly used in ICAC investigations.

“With ICAC Task Forces at the forefront of the battle against online child exploitation, Raven is dedicated to pushing for targeted earmarks, legislative reforms and proactive advocacy,” says Pizzuro.

These efforts offer hope for bridging these legislative gaps and ensuring that the ICAC Task Force program has the resources and support needed to effectively protect children from online predators.