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Reality paints a grim picture of child exploitation in the U.S.— according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 1 in 9 girls and 1 in 20 boys under the age of 18 have faced forms of sexual abuse or assault. Once alerted, these cases can lead law enforcement down a dark rabbit hole that often pulls more victims and CSAM content into the picture.

Owing to the ubiquity of digital devices, getting to the suspect’s smartphones, computers, and even vehicle infotainment system, can help law enforcement unlock a wealth of information in these instances—potential evidence that corroborates the suspect’s testimony and identify victims and other parties involved.

Such was the case with Prince William County Police Department when they received what seemed like a routine referral from their Special Victim’s Unit—that would ultimately draw in involvement from the ICAC and the office’s digital forensics unit.

Daycare Crisis

Helga Thorsdottir, Police Detective – Prince William County Police Department Source: Cellebrite
Helga Thorsdottir, Police Detective – Prince William County Police Department Source: Cellebrite

As police detective, Helga Thorsdottir recalls, “I initially got a phone call while I was in the field for a different case. It had come through Child Protective Services about a four-year-old that disclosed that her teacher had tickled her,” she explained.

“We did a forensic interview with the child and confirmed what she told us—that her daycare teacher was inappropriately touching her.”

The suspect was interviewed, and in the interim, had his phone seized via a search warrant. In collaboration with an ICAC task force that had Cellebrite solutions on hand, they managed to gain access to incriminating content that quickly led to a search warrant for the suspect’s home.

Devices from computers to smartwatches from the suspect’s home were seized, all of which made their way onto the table of the county’s digital forensics lab led by Sergeant Ryan Whaley who has been overseeing the lab since 2014.

The Lab

Conceived in the early 2000s, Prince William County’s Digital Forensics Lab branched out from the property crimes unit, when one of their detectives got the chance to receive free training on computer forensics.

The lab was officially established in 2008 with a supervisor and two trained detectives. As the unit evolved over the years so did its personal and tech stack—which now comprises advanced extraction and decoding tools.

Into the Rabbit Hole

Katie Zaimis, Master Detective for the Digital Forensics Lab – Prince William County Police Department – Source: Cellebrite

“Most of the devices came through our lab at some point. Three computers, cellphones, and a few loose drives,” said Katherine ‘Katie’ Zaimis, Master Detective for the digital forensics lab.

Collectively, they managed to extract content that was consistent with child pornography and child sexual exploitation. The data also pinpointed additional victims, “It became apparent that he would also use his smartwatch while on the playground with the children to take the images of them,” Detective Helga added.

The suspect eventually provided a full confession and was charged.

When the case was made public, additional victims came forward and the digital evidence—on top of corroborating the suspect’s confession—was also able to corroborate these individual disclosures. “For the victims in this case where these families are being told that all these things happened. We managed to validate the claims [with the digital evidence],” said the Det. Helga.

Cases like these are no one-offs for the Prince William County PD, the lab saw more than 300 devices last year alone and has supported investigations on notable high-profile cases—carving swifter paths to justice.

In the decade since its establishment, they have picked up on a few valuable lessons:

Collaboration is key

“I think collaboration is definitely important, not just from a technology perspective. We have people that come to our lab asking us to do work for them because they don’t have a specific tool that we have for example, and vice versa. That’s why networking in our field is extremely important. And, if you help somebody else out, they’re more likely to help you out when you need it,” said Det. Zaimis.

Prince William County Police Department – Source: Cellebrite

Training begets better outcomes

Det. Zaimis was quick to hark on this crucial point. “In our field, training is extremely important. You must keep updated on things. The way things are today might not be the way things are next week. So, if we just stay the same and we don’t train and we don’t update our methods and our investigative methods, then you know, we’re going to start spinning our wheels and not get anywhere.”

Old dogs, new tricks

As Sergeant Whaley puts it, “For our department’s philosophy, we train other detectives who then become part-time examiners. Last year there’s usually about an average of three detectives who are Cellebrite certified and know how to do phones for their unit.”

This adds to the lab’s capacity, improving Prince William County PD’s ability to process digital evidence—cutting down on backlogs and case bottlenecks.

Conclusion

The pivotal role played by the Prince William County Police Department in combating child exploitation cannot be understated. Their adept utilization of digital investigative solutions has led to the unraveling of intricate cases, the identification of victims, and the successful prosecution of perpetrators.

Through collaborative efforts, continuous training, and the adoption of advanced technologies such as Cellebrite solutions, they have strengthened their ability to expeditiously process digital evidence and provide support for high-profile investigations.

With over a decade of dedication, their relentless pursuit of justice sets a powerful example, reinforcing the significance of working together to protect the vulnerable.

A version of this article was originally published on the Cellebrite blog: https://cellebrite.com/en/how-prince-william-county-police-department-leverages-digital-forensics-in-child-exploitation-cases-to-serve-swift-justice/