Millions of pieces of child pornography have passed through its walls. Images of children from around the world being abused by adults, their pain memorialized and shared online among a dark network of pedophiles.
Each photo and video is collected, analyzed and tagged.
This child pornography clearinghouse is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) -- a nongovernmental organization tasked by Congress with identifying abused children and assisting law enforcement in ensuring their assaults come to an end.
“All we know when we look at a video or photograph is that it was produced on Earth and what we try to do is try to identify where on Earth the image was produced. We then get the information to the appropriate law enforcement agency in that area and they begin the search for the child or the offender,” said Michelle Collins, vice president of the nonprofit’s Exploited Children Division.
NCMEC (Nick-Mek), as it’s nicknamed, launched in 1984 in the wake of several high-profile child abductions and murders starting in the late 1970s, including the abduction and decapitation of 6-year-old Adam Walsh. NCMEC began collecting and sharing the photos of missing and exploited children with partners who would then post them on milk cartons, billboards and more recently, banner ads on websites.
Each week, analysts at NCMEC review hundreds of thousands of photos and videos showcasing child porn at its Alexandria, Virginia headquarters. The historic six-story brown brick building in the sleepy Washington, D.C. suburb houses the organization’s Child Victim Identification Program. The staggering volume of explicit material is passed to them from detectives and agents around the world.
Since the program’s inception in September 2002, the organization has reviewed more than 121.6 million images and video. Collins admits a large number of those are duplicates, but she says the total shows how “significant” of a problem the production and trade of child pornography has become.
“It’s important to remember that child pornography is really a reflection of child sexual molestation. A molestation had to occur and somebody had to photograph, videotape, document, memorialize the abuse,” she said. “So the problem with child sexual molestation has always existed. We’re now seeing it with our own eyes because the people are taking photographs, videos and sharing them online.”
As the repository for the child exploitation material, NCMEC catalogs every new image and tallies duplicate material.
A sophisticated computer algorithm will analyze the media and look for its fingerprint. Officials use this to track how often the image is traded and how many times a child has been digitally victimized. Called hash values, this fingerprint is then added to a database.
But small changes in the image — like resizing — can alter that fingerprint so, Collins says, their program goes a step further by identifying the photo’s DNA.
“You could take a photograph and make it a little smaller, a little bigger, cut off the corner of it and photo DNA will recognize it as the same photo, where a regular hash would not,” she said.
As NCMEC analysts process the media, they will determine whether it is known to authorities and whether the victim has been identified.
“If you arrested somebody in Pennsylvania, there may be new images or video of a child from Australia. And that’s when we’ll get that information over to the appropriate law enforcement agency in Australia,” Collins said.
The organization also acts as a notification service.
When photos of a child who has already been identified show up in a new investigation, NCMEC will offer up details and contact information for the detective who investigated the original case.
“Many prosecutors want to know that the images that they’re prosecuting on contain children that have already been identified,” Collins said. It removes questions as to whether the image is legitimately child pornography, she adds.
Some victims, or their parents, opt to be notified every time their series of child porn images are uncovered by law enforcement. NCMEC helps facilitate that process, but never knows the child’s name or contact information, Collins said. Individual agencies handle the communication with the victim.
“It’s such a tragic crime type. You have children that have been sexual abused, most typically by someone in a position of trust, that in many cases their abuser goes to jail, but their images keep circulating,” Collins said.
The continued circulation can go on for years. Collins said some victims, who are now adults, visited NCMEC and outlined the lasting impact.
“Not only did this happen, that they have to live with being sexually abused, but they have to live with the fear that there are individuals around the globe using the images to sexually gratify themselves, as bargaining tools,” she said.
The victim identification program grew out of the other major initiative in the child exploitation division: the CyberTipline.
A reporting mechanism, the tip line collects reports from the public and 1,116 U.S.-based electronic service providers about the trade of child pornography. Phone calls, website submissions and direct reports from service providers stream into NCMEC. They're then reviewed and funneled to to law enforcement around the world.
Despite the name, the nonprofit initially focused solely on children who were missing.
“With missing children, you know they’re inherently exploited. But starting in the mid-90s we had many, many children who were being exploited, who were safe at home, or on a soccer team or on a brownie troop,” Collins said.
As use of the Internet expanded, the trade of explicit material moved from mail and dark corners of porn shops to online. This digital explosion prompted law enforcement and NCMEC to develop ways to combat the illegal trade.
In 1998, the CyberTipline was born.
In a given week, NCMEC receives between 15,000 and 25,000 reports, Collins said. The overwhelming majority are for instances of child pornography.
In one week in mid-September, 23,564, reports came in about child porn. And most of those reports come from the same few dozen electronic service providers, according to Collins.
"So if Facebook becomes aware of child pornography on their system and that happens to originate from an IP address in Korea or in Italy or in Australia, our job is to identify that and make it available to the appropriate law enforcement agency," Collins said.
The reports typically come in the form of an IP address that can be traced back to a home or business. Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies will then review the leads and execute search warrants to see if a person has in fact been downloading, distributing, or in the worst cases, producing child porn.
“The numbers continue to increase each year,” Collins said of the reports they receive. “One thing, I think all of us inquisitively would like to know is does that mean the problem is getting worse? Honestly, I would have to say that it’s a variety of things. Certainly, you have more people online, but you also have online providers that are being really vigilant about ensuring that their systems are not misused and abused for trading bad material.”
But even with the increased reporting by online companies, Collins says it’s important for anyone who may suspect a child is the victim of exploitation to reach out and make a report.
You can make a report to NCMEC by visiting their website, CyberTip.org.