If you're like many Americans with a smartphone always in your hand, federal investigators want to enlist you in the fight against child sexual exploitation.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations has launched a smartphone app that connects the agency with citizens to provide alerts on suspects, news about successful investigations and links to other law enforcement agencies.
And with the app, called "Operation Predator" installed on an Apple or Android device, Homeland Security is never more than a swipe and a tap away. The app allows citizens to quickly report suspicious activity or information about a suspect by phone or email.
"Sexual crimes against children are often vastly underreported to law enforcement so we're constantly asking for the public's help," said Assistant Special Agent in Charge William Walker in HSI's Philadelphia office.
Recognizing that time is of the essence in solving crimes of child abduction or exploitation and that many people have a smartphone with them at all times, HSI set out to develop the app.
"That immediate connectivity provides an opportunity to educate the public and get their cooperation in solving these kinds of crimes," Walker said.
The agency's role in investigating child exploitation has roots in its predecessor U.S. Custom Service's pursuit of pornography shipped into the United States from abroad. With the advent of the Internet and the explosion of trafficking in child pornography, HSI's mission has taken on new dimensions, Walker said.
The app's news stream helps to educate parents and others about the "red flag" warning signs of an abuser. And the alerts help the agency disseminate information and images to a wide audience, members of which may hold the key to solving a child sexual abuse case.
In the first alert posted on the app, which became available to download Thursday from Apple's iTunes App Store, images of an unknown man are included in the hope that someone will recognize him and report him to HSI, Walker said. The app will be available for Android smartphones and tablets in the near future.
Among the images in the alert, which were cropped out of photographs depicting the sexual abuse of a child, is one showing the inside of a home with family photos on the wall.
"Someone in the public is going to recognize that as a house they've been in or someone they know," Walker said. (continued...)
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