Officials: Mobile lab to speed child-exploitation crackdown

Posted at 10:24 PM, October 4, 2021 and last updated 3:18 PM, July 24, 2023

By JOHN O’CONNOR AP Political Writer

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 advanced technology. When authorities target a suspect, the unit will be key in an environment where timing is critical and evidence integrity can make or break a case, 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 biohazards,” Flores said — the mobile unit will be a centralized laboratory offering privacy and safety.

“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.

“That children, from infants to teenagers, get preyed upon is the hidden crisis facing us,” said Douglas Quivey, acting U.S. attorney for the central district of Illinois.