In the background of the photo, which was posted online, are products including prescription medication.
But zooming in on that pill bottle makes the details unreadable.
“Utilizing some technology that hadn’t even been released to the public yet we were able to take a look at the bottle and reverse out some of the motion blur,” Cole said.
They can now see the offender’s first name “Stephen,” the first two letters of the last name and the first three digits on the prescription order.
With that he applies to the pharmacy for the customer details of every person who fits that criteria. It narrows the list down to a man named “Stephen Keating.”
But that’s not all. The offender’s fingers are also in the picture and incredibly this crack team manages to pull the fingerprints from the image.
“That was the first time we were able to do that,” Cole said.
The evidence was strong enough to put Stephen Keating behind bars for 110 years. Investigators rescued his 14 victims.
No victim left behind
“We strive to find these children as quick as possible,” Cole said. “The longer it takes us the longer that child is in harm’s way.”
It’s not an easy task when Cole says they are seeing 500,000 images a week: that’s over 25 million a year.
The Keating case ran for about three weeks and in the past it could have taken months — or worse, the image may never have been uncovered at all.
Using technology known as “Photo DNA” their computers can wade through the hundreds of thousands of photos fast, categorizing the ones they’ve already seen to allow his team to focus on the new victims.
“What used to take us nine months now takes us a month,” said Cole.
“It helps us review video on a scale of about 100 times faster than previously,” he added. “It’s been a complete game-changer for law enforcement and we get that feedback from the field all the time.”
Easing psychological burden
The efficiency not only saves time, it helps ease the psychological burden on investigators.
“We definitely see a mental health benefit because the nature of our offenders is they are trading material we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of times in addition to the new material,” Cole said.
The technology helped investigators find a seemingly harmless photo of a known offender with her victim on vacation. The image showed the pair holding fish at a campsite.
“Within four hours we had her identified,” Cole said.
The child was rescued and the woman is now serving a 25-year sentence.
On another image of an offender with a young girl, the Project VIC team noticed a company logo on the man’s sweatshirt but they couldn’t decipher what was written. Some cutting edge technology helped make the logo almost completely readable. An online search for names that might match the letters led investigators to a plumbing business. The offender, a former employee, was tracked down and four victims were rescued.
The number of images like these being shared online is on the rise.
Tip-offs come from the public, and also companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter, who are mandated by U.S. regulations to report any such images.
According to Lindsay Olson, director of the Exploited Child Division at NCMEC, 94% of the cases last year were outside the United States.
“As more and more crime is becoming more and more digital as data is being distributed online,” he said. “You see a new type of police officer that is behind a computer screen and with the right tools they can crack these cases.”
The Internet has no borders so law enforcement agencies need to overcome traditional geographic boundaries to work together.
Project VIC is now being used by Interpol, Europol and agencies in 35 countries including the United Kingdom and Canada, and it’s about to be rolled out in Australia.
In the United States the results speak for themselves.