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Volunteers Are Helping Europol Geo-Locate Child Abuse Images

In June, the European Union's law enforcement agency launched a crowdsourcing project to identify items in child abuse images. Online sleuths have already matched plenty of localized objects.

by Joseph Cox
Jul 10 2017, 3:30pm

Dozens, maybe hundreds of people are working on an investigation. Online sleuths have contributed to a project launched by the European Union's law enforcement agency to crowdsource digital forensic analysis of images related to child abuse.

Europol's 'Trace an Object' campaign asks members of the public to figure out what country an item or a particular location in child abuse imagery may have been filmed or photographed in. Europol launched the project in June, and has already received more than 14,000 tips. On Friday, Europol released its second set of images to the public—the pictures have been redacted to remove any illegal content, leaving just household objects. These items may still provide clues, though.

"We have definitely received good leads," a Europol spokesperson told Motherboard in a phone call on Friday. Europol then provides these analyses to other agencies who may be able to dig up more details.

"The main focus is on tracing back the origin—in what countries, and so on—so that we are able to send that information to the country concerned, and then they, from there, can take it over," the Europol spokesperson said. "We've received up until now more than 14,300," they added.

Got a tip? You can contact this reporter securely on Signal at +44 20 8133 5190, OTR chat at jfcox@jabber.ccc.de , or email joseph.cox@vice.com.

Law enforcement agencies around the world privately analyze images of abuse for clues about where they were taken, or look in the images for items that may give away a suspect's or victim's identity. Motherboard previously spoke to Jim Cole, the National Program Manager for Victim Identification at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who uses Photoshop and other pieces of software to highlight easy to miss details in pictures—a company branded t-shirt, a prescription pill bottle—that can be used as leads in investigations. His and other investigations have directly led to arrests of sexual abuse suspects.

Opening up these investigations to the public, however, may mean someone spots an item that is particular to their own country or region.

Bellingcat, a journalistic collective with members around the world that's focused on open source research, recently created a project on Check, an online platform for managing verification efforts to help with Europol's campaign. At the time of writing, volunteer detectives have successfully identified at least three items: a pair of toy shoes, a specific brand of child's clothing, and a pair of supermarket bags that are typically located in Nordic countries.

The volunteers have also coordinated their efforts on Twitter and Reddit, keeping track of which images have been successfully matched and reported to Europol. One Reddit user identified a bag from UK supermarket Tesco, and another identified what appears to be a specific brand of shower.

"Bo," a member of the Bellingcat group, explained how he went about identifying the pair of toy shoes. First, a member of a Dutch volunteer investigators forum found a similar image, also of a toy shoe, likely just by Googling. Bo then conducted a reverse image search on that picture, which searches through Google for visually similar images. Included in those results was a toy that looked very similar to the item posted by Europol.

"It wasn't that technical at all. ;)" Bo told Motherboard in an email.

Although no arrests have been made yet, the tips are still helpful, the Europol spokesperson said.

"The most innocent clues can sometimes help crack a case," Europol's website reads.

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