Police and civilian agencies responsible for investigating the spread of child pornography say they are overwhelmed by the flood of images and videos hitting the internet — even through everyday sites like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.
To help illustrate the problem, Det. Brian Cross opens a computer screen, showing a map of Alberta: nearly every community, big and small, has at least a few little red tags attached.
"Each of these red pin plot dots would be an instance in which child exploitation material is being shared on a peer-to-peer file-sharing network," he explains.
When he clicks to zoom in on the Edmonton region, dozens of more red dots expand across the map, giving it the look of fireworks exploding in the night sky.
The shocking display only illustrates the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the online proliferation of child pornography. Authorities say most of the material is now being spread through common social media and photo-sharing sites, the same ones families use to share vacation photos, or foodies use to post images of their lunch.
According to the U.K.-based Internet Watch Foundation, 94 per cent of the child pornography images it detected in 2016 were posted on free-to-use image-hosting sites. Places like Tumblr, Imgur and Flickr. Even sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are dealing with users who post illicit photos.
Last year, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) says it received 8.2 million reports of child pornography — up from 1.1 million reports just two years earlier.
"The accessibility and proliferation of these social media applications is causing our job to be more difficult," says Staff Sgt. Stephen Camp, head of northern Alberta's Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) unit.
Flood of child porn leads to difficult choices
Camp's staff of 14 police officers and civilian technicians last year worked through 467 cases involving child sexual abuse images. Some of it was absolutely ghastly, says Camp.
"Just two weeks ago, there were two files that came through that were both child violent-death films — so sexual assault, violence, and death of the child after. Single-digit children, not teenagers."
At the outset of a case, Camp explains, police are usually presented with an image or a collection of images, and an IP address, the unique identifying number assigned to every computer that's connected to the internet. Police then apply for a warrant in order to get the basic subscriber information attached to that IP address from the user's internet service provider.
Drafting the warrant takes hours. Getting the subscriber information can take more than a month. And that only lets police know who owns the account: it doesn't necessarily mean that person posted the images.
"The process is arduous," says Camp, adding he gets frustrated over long legal delays when children could be at risk.
"It seems like the children are becoming, not re-victimized, but they're put at even higher risk for every day that goes by. It seems unusual to me."
Camp says the often-lengthy timeline has forced his unit to use a form of triage, so they can better focus on the cases where they believe children can actually be saved.
Earlier this month, they were able to do just that.
International co-operation leads to child rescue
Most North American investigations begin with information provided by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a non-governmental agency based just outside of Washington, D.C.
With its cybertip line and partnerships with social media companies, NCMEC serves as a sort of clearing house.
When people stumble upon illicit material while browsing the web, they can either report it directly to the site where it was found or send it to a cybertip line. U.S.-based internet providers are obligated by law to pass those tips on to the agency, and NCMEC processes thousands of tips each day.
"We review the information that's provided, because we're in that clearing house role, and we provide information back out to [the appropriate] law enforcement," explains Lindsay Olson, executive director of NCMEC's exploited children division.
Last year, about 10,000 of the tips received by the agency involved images posted from Canadian IP addresses.
In one case last March, a social networking site sent an image and IP address to NCMEC, which was traced back to Canada. It was initially referred to the RCMP's National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre in Ottawa, which determined the IP address was based in St. Albert, Alta.
That's how it landed on the desk of Staff Sgt. Camp.
Camp won't go into detail about why the image stood out, but it was quickly flagged as a priority case. It took two months from that very first tip until arrest warrants were issued.
In early May, two school-aged children were taken from a St. Albert home and their parents charged. They had been abused for three years, Camp says.
"These children were allegedly sexually assaulted by their own father, in their own home, in an otherwise quiet and safe community of St. Albert."
New tools to aid police
While the social media era has meant a proliferation of illegal images, there are also growing efforts within the online community to crack down on child pornography and rescue those it exploits.
Major internet companies, which are increasingly finding themselves bombarded with illegal images, are fighting back through a technology called Photo DNA. Developed by Microsoft, it allows sites to instantly recognize and remove photographs that have previously been flagged as child porn.
Another emerging technology, called F1, is assisting sites in flagging offending video clips, even if only a small segment is posted.
Internationally, Project VIC is working to pull together all of these emerging technologies, in order to promote a standardized system of co-operation and sharing between agencies — a global network aimed at ending child sex abuse.
"What we've done with Project VIC is to get all those tools to talk in the same language, in a way that they can exchange data from one tool to another," says manager Richard Brown.
When local authorities uncover a trove of illicit images, they often spend hours combing through them independently. Project VIC hosts a database of known child porn images, each marked with its own digital fingerprint, allowing authorities to hone in on any newly created content — and identify if any children are at immediate risk, requiring an expedited response.
The group is currently working with Interpol and Europol, along with law enforcement in more than 25 countries, including Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia.
That's why in this battle that's playing out online, police say reports from people who come across illegal images can be the most valuable ones of all.