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Saturday, December 3, 2022

HSToday Profile: Utilizing Technology to Help Bring Home Missing and Trafficked Children

Human trafficking in all of its forms is horrific, but when it involves children it is especially heinous. Law enforcement at every level – domestically and internationally – work tirelessly to combat it through coordination, information-sharing, training and crafting best practices. That sounds easier than it actually is, but there is probably no better partner to those law enforcement efforts and to the families of victimized children than the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).

Located in Alexandria, Va., NCMEC provides leadership, collaboration, training and expertise to law enforcement, industry, communities and countless others as they work to protect children from harm and exploitation. One of the organization’s most insightful and passionate leaders is Matt Foosaner, a member of the board of directors and now the co-chairman of NCMEC’s new Technology Committee.

In addition to his service as an NCMEC board member, Foosaner has also held senior management positions in operations, sales and engineering with Nextel Communications, Sprint Nextel Corp., Skyterra and Powerwave Technologies, where he worked to deliver mission-critical communications to more than a thousand government agencies as well as hundreds of educational and healthcare institutions.

Foosaner’s background and subject-matter expertise in telecommunications and technology issues has been an asset to NCMEC, federal law enforcement agencies and public safety organizations for nearly three decades. It’s one of the reasons he’s been a sought-out voice on interoperability, technology integration and resilient communications issues by any number of public, private and public safety organizations.

HSToday’s Editor at Large Rich Cooper recently sat down with Foosaner to try to get a better understanding of how he and NCMEC are using technology to aid the fight against human trafficking and how to better protect our children. 

HSToday Profile: Utilizing Technology to Help Bring Home Missing and Trafficked Children Homeland Security Today
Matt Foosaner (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children photo)

HSToday: Human trafficking and, in particular, violence and victimization of children is a very tough, very emotional issue to deal with. How did you become involved with this issue and become part of the NCMEC team?

Foosaner: In 2005 I was leading a tactical communications team that would deploy during presidential declared disasters, National Special Security Events, field training exercises, Joint Terrorism Task Forces, and specialized requests. These deployments primarily supported federal law enforcement agencies, Department of Defense and state and local first responders.

During our largest deployment, Hurricane Katrina, we were supporting 75 agencies (federal, state and local) and approximately 7,600 law enforcement, Defense and fire/EMS personnel. We received a request from NCMEC to provide communications support for their Team ADAM, which had deployed to the impacted area. Team ADAM is a voluntary group of former agents, officers and investigators who have retired but have experience in missing-children cases. During Katrina over 5,000 children went missing and became separated from their parents and legal guardians during the mass evacuations.

After Katrina, the then-Chief Operating Officer John Rabun asked me if I was interested in joining the Law Enforcement Committee on the board of directors in order to provide my telecom/technology industry experience, given that I had worked in the law enforcement environment. I was impressed with the organization and its mission and have been involved and proud supporter ever since.

By the way, NCMEC and Team ADAM were able to positively resolve all 5,000-plus missing-children cases from Katrina in 365 days.

HSToday: What role does the board have in the operations of NCMEC?

Foosaner: The NCMEC board of directors has a fiduciary responsible to oversee the overall health of the organization and support NCMEC in its mission to help find missing children, reduce child sexual exploitation and prevent further victimization.

HSToday: Who does NCMEC work with in the homeland security community?

Foosaner: Homeland Security Investigations [ICE] has a very strong partnership with NCMEC. This relationship allows for NCMEC to provide CyberTipline reports (the CyberTipline is NCMEC’s mechanism to report suspected online child sexual exploitation) to more than 100 countries across the world through a system of VPNs and works closely with NCMEC to try and identify children in child sexual abuse material. Through the support of Homeland Security, NCMEC has been able to expand its programs and focus on awareness of the issues surrounding child sexual exploitation and funnel more resources into prevention materials.

HSToday: How have those relationships evolved over the past decade?

Foosaner: The relationship with the homeland security community has only grown stronger over the last decade. As NCMEC has evolved and grown, so has our partnership. They have never faltered in their support of NCMEC, and continue to work toward making this world safer for children and combating the issue of child sexual abuse materials online.

HSToday: Federal law enforcement often has far more access to advanced tools and technologies than local law enforcement. How does NCMEC help bridge that gap?

Foosaner: Yes, we are very aware that across the country agencies have varying tools and access to resources. One of the great things about NCMEC is our ability to identify possible tools that could help in an investigation and then put agencies in contact with one another to share resources.

HSToday: Technology is always evolving and changing very quickly. How quickly can an organization like NCMEC adapt to those changes and pass them along to law enforcement partners?

Foosaner: At NCMEC, we strive to be on the cutting edge of technology because we know how important it is to ensuring the safety of children. We are constantly evolving how we utilize the latest tech to help law enforcement bring home missing kids and rescue children from sexual exploitation. We also use information received through the CyberTipline – NCMEC’s online reporting mechanism for possible child sexual exploitation – to assess how technology is being used by criminals to gain access and exploit children. This data also informs our prevention education programs and keeps them relevant.

HSToday: What role does the new Technology Committee at NCMEC play in these efforts?

Foosaner: The Technology Committee is designed to enable NCMEC to be able to evaluate novel technologies. By utilizing the Technology Committee, NCMEC’s software engineers can devote their time to rapidly building and enhancing critical systems already in process. The committee allows NCMEC staff to focus on current priorities while also providing a mechanism to ensure that NCMEC applies advanced capabilities when appropriate to continually improve our results.

HSToday: What’s the most impressive technology you and NCMEC see in helping combat human trafficking and preventing further harm to children?

Foosaner: Many children are being sold for sex online, so it’s critical for us to leverage tech to connect details and work more quickly. This includes technology that allows us to analyze the content of images to better match faces, backgrounds or anything that could develop a lead for where that missing child might be. We’re also utilizing technology to find information that appears in multiple ads – such as a phone number – that may give us a clearer picture of where a child is being trafficked right now, especially if they are being moved from location to location. This can also help put together a timeline with locations of where a child was trafficked to help law enforcement and prosecutors as they build a case.

HSToday: What type of technology training does NCMEC offer to law enforcement and children’s advocacy groups to help them in this fight?

Foosaner: NCMEC’s Child Sex Trafficking Awareness and Response (CSTAR) training program brings together the expertise of local and federal law enforcement officers, prosecutors and victim advocates to equip first responders with tools and strategies to effectively investigate and prosecute cases of child sex trafficking. Facilitated by members of NCMEC’s specialized child sex trafficking analysts and training teams, attendees leave with heightened awareness of the unique dynamics of these cases as well as the resources available to support their efforts to combat child victimization.

HSToday: Who pays for that technology and training services that NCMEC provides?

Foosaner: Most of the technology we use is generously donated by our tech partners. NCMEC’s trainings are free of charge to law enforcement, prosecutors and child-serving professionals thanks to a grant from the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. We’re occasionally able to offer additional trainings with the support of our corporate partners.

HSToday: Who is the partner that you don’t have at the table that you want to have to join this fight?

Foosaner: I think the most overlooked population that can help in the fight against child sex trafficking is the public! Many children who are being trafficked are in the same places we are and it’s up to us to speak up if something doesn’t seem right. They take public transportation, are at hotels, shop in convenience stores and go to gas stations. You don’t have to be sure something bad is happening, but if you see a situation where you question the safety of a child, please call NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST or make a report at CyberTipline.org.

HSToday: How do you work with social media companies to combat human trafficking and stopping crimes against children?

Foosaner: Reporting is key. We work very closely with social media companies, so they can report instances of child sexual exploitation through our CyberTipline. Every report is made available to the appropriate law enforcement agency for possible investigation.

HSToday: Does NCMEC test new and emerging technologies for use in its mission? And if so, how does a company work with you to be a part of a demonstration pilot or project?

Foosaner: Yes, we do evaluate new and emerging technologies through our Technology Committee. Any company interested in working with us should contact us and submit a form outlining the technology that is being offered and how they envision its use at the center.

HSToday: No community is immune to the problems that NCMEC has to combat, but as someone who has worked professionally and as a private citizen to address these crimes what advice do you have for people on how to address these problems?

Foosaner: The public plays a vital role in helping to identify victims of child sex trafficking so they can be safely recovered by law enforcement. What we’ve heard in the past is people may hesitate to make a report because they’re not certain a crime is being committed. Something may just not look or feel right. I would say, better to make a report and be wrong than miss an opportunity to help recover a child.

HSToday: How do you measure success in an environment that is as heartbreaking and challenging as combating human trafficking and crimes against children?

Foosaner: That’s a great question. It can be hard to quantify success when the problem seems so large. But I would say that we measure success on a case-by-case basis. Every child who is recovered from sex trafficking or another exploitive situation is a success. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the numbers, but we know that every report we receive, every tip, is a child who needs help. And anything we can do to help law enforcement get that child out of the bad situation is success in our book.

HSToday: What’s the technology that you are looking for today that will be the game-changer to serving the NCMEC mission?

Foosaner: As a clearinghouse of information, any technology that helps us optimally manage that data is critical. One of the projects on the horizon here at NCMEC is a modernization of our call center technology so we can handle all the calls and tips coming into the center as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Rich Cooper
Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications & Outreach for the Space Foundation and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. Cooper is also a former Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute and has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, SAS and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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