SALT LAKE CITY – A Colorado man last year kidnapped young children in the middle of the night and took them to a hotel. He sexually abused them, took pictures and videos of the acts, and shared them online with another sex offender in Ontario, Canada.
Like a puppeteer, the Canadian offender instructed the man in Colorado what to do with the children.
The good news: Together, the Colorado Springs Police Department and the Toronto Police Service were able to solve the case and stop the abuse in a matter of months, thanks to new technology created by an FBI special agent in Salt Lake City.
Since the software was approved by the FBI last fall, it has helped save at least 45 children, and led to 330 searches and more than 220 arrests, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
In May, the center gave FBI Special Agent Eric Zimmerman an award for his contributions in fighting child sex crimes.
After the Utah Attorney General’s office directed Zimmerman to create a basic triage tool, the FBI agent instead devised something much more advanced.
During the last two years, he created 13 software search tools that have changed the way child sex crimes are being investigated worldwide. They are being used by state, local, and federal authorities in the U.S. and 41 countries to help catch online sexual predators more quickly.
“I can honestly say it is one of the best tools that I have ever used since doing this line of work,” said Toronto Police Service Detective Paul Krawczyk, who has worked in the child exploitation section of his agency for 10 years.
Zimmerman declined to discuss in detail how the tools work because they are used in active law enforcement investigations.
Generally, the programs run on a thumb drive that searches deep inside a computer or interacts with a remote computer and searches it for evidence, much like an officer would at a physical crime scene.
In the past, agents would enter a home and seize all the computers, then have to wait several months while a technician went through the laundry list of data on a room full of computers from other cases first, Zimmerman said.
His technology means investigators don’t have to seize all electronics.
“Our whole goal is to be minimally intrusive in everything we do,” Zimmerman said.
The software has a forensic program that interprets evidence left in chat rooms and records of programs used by suspects. It boils down the computer gibberish to something an officer without a computer science degree can understand.
The program alerts officers to what is found in real time. A search warrant – or consent of the suspect – is required to use the tools on an electronic device.
Now email alerts notify agents when a suspect is online. Before Zimmerman’s software, investigators had to monitor chat rooms by logging in and waiting until the suspect logged in, too.
All leads, warrants and arrest information are compiled in the same system and are accessible by the 41 countries with contacts in each agency. Previously, FBI agents would organize evidence by placing all their information on a particular case into an in-house spreadsheet.
“There was no way for you to find out (what agency) was involved in what,” Zimmerman said. “Now we can more effectively patrol our own backyards.”
While the technology is used mostly for child pornography cases, Zimmerman said it could be expanded in the future to investigate computer network hacking or financial fraud.