Note: this post deals with difficult topics. This is not suitable for minors, and may be inappropriate for others based on your history. I will also quickly admit that writing this is more for my own benefit than anything else (needed to get thoughts out).
This week I spent a few days in Dallas, TX at the Crimes Against Children conference. I started to say "I was privileged to attend…" but I'm not certain that imparts the appropriate gravity to the conference. This week wasn't a party. It wasn't a "good time". It wasn't fun. It was work. Hard work. I found myself having to force myself to attend the sessions.
The conference represented a gathering of folks from across the international community involved in fighting against the sexual exploitation of minors. The purpose included sharing stories, ideas, training, collaboration, and support. There were sessions ranging from digital forensics, techniques in interviewing victims and suspects, psychological assessments of both, avoiding burn out and fatigue of the officers and social workers in the field and many other related topics.
My role was a small one… to meet with other technologists and discuss the technical methods that these folks are employing to hide their activity, and to hypothesize on means by which we can better identify the suspects and victims with the goal of putting the best tools in the hands of Law Enforcement to enable them to quickly get the bad guys and rescue the children.
Unfortunately, to do this well, you have to learn a lot about what they are doing and how they are doing it. You have to think about how they will try to hide, and then think about how to uncover them without tipping them off as to your means and methods. This involves many hours of briefings of cases… details, specifics… enough to make a reasonable person sick to his stomach.
I leaned things this week that I cannot share. They are a burden too great to place on someone simply interested in how my week went. Even the broad topic is enough to turn many away. For all but a few- and in many ways, myself included - the reality is that we can't handle the truth. We don't want to know about the evil around us. We don't want to acknowledge that this sort of thing happens -and statistically is happening - around us on a regular basis.
For me, the saddest part of the conference came as I was walking around the exhibitor floor and came upon a table where two ladies were selling oversized stuffed frogs. Unlike your average stuffed animal, this one was specially designed to hold (and hopefully comfort) a child during a post-rescue examination. As they discussed the features included such as a squeaker built into the hand to allow children to communicate who were otherwise to traumatized to speak and a washable gown to provide hygienic protection for the frog, I found myself overwhelmed with the reality of it all. When they commented on how amazed they were with the advancements in software tools being brought to the fight, all I could muster in response was that if we did our jobs better, products like theirs wouldn't be needed. With that I thanked them and then walked away.
At one point, I stood on a balcony overlooking the conference floor and observed the over 3,000 men and women walking around… I felt like I was watching a group of warriors - and in many ways, I think I was. Here was a group of people who fight this fight each and every day. Men and women who pour over thousands of images and videos… emails, chat messages, search queries, etc. people who have the awful task of sitting down with a child that has just been rescued, and trying to help them regain a sense of normalcy… to regain the sanity that was stolen from them. I found myself proud to be in their company, and my resolution to help them strengthened.
During one briefing, an agent was discussing a bit of functionality that had been recently added to one of his team's forensics tools. "We have closed 7 cases as a direct result of that feature." That is the kind of thing that gets me jazzed. That is what pushes me on… maybe something I or my team builds could some day receive a similar accolade… I can think of little better.
If you are a technologist reading this post, I want to encourage you to look beyond the day-in-day-out of your work responsibilities and find something truly important to which you can apply your craft. You can make a difference. You can help someone. I'm not suggesting that you quit your job, but rather that you view your job and the skills it helps you develop and maintain as an enabler for good in the world. Look for an outlet - a cause you can get passionate about, and do what you can to help.
If you know someone who is involved in rescuing these kids and putting these folks away, thank them, give them a hug, and then buy them dinner. Talk to them about normal life… baseball, family, happy things… give them some escape from the horrors they face each day, and be understanding when they just need to be quiet or alone.
If you are someone on the front lines of this fight - I want to thank you. You are doing a job I wish we didn't need, but is incredibly important nonetheless. Each child that is identified and rescued makes it worthwhile. Each technology capability that we remove from their toolkit, each additional tool we add to the arsenal of the investigators that enables them to more quickly do their job, each time we make it harder for these folks to continue hurting kids… those are good days.