Combating Child Pornography:

Steps Are Needed to Ensure That Tips to Law Enforcement Are Useful and Forensic Examinations Are Cost Effective

GAO-11-334: Published: Mar 31, 2011. Publicly Released: Mar 31, 2011.

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The Department of Justice (DOJ) reports that online child pornography crime has increased. DOJ funds the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which maintains the CyberTipline to receive child pornography tips. The Providing Resources, Officers, and Technology To Eradicate Cyber Threats to Our Children Act of 2008 (the Act) contains provisions to facilitate these investigations and create a national strategy to prevent, among other things, child pornography. The Act directed GAO to report on actions to minimize duplication and enhance federal expenditures to address this crime. This report examines (1) the extent to which NCMEC determines the usefulness of tips; (2) mechanisms to help law enforcement coordination (i.e., deconfliction); and (3) the extent to which agencies are addressing factors that federal law enforcement reports may inhibit investigations. GAO analyzed the Act and spoke to law enforcement officials who investigate these crimes, selected to reflect geographic range, among other things. Although these interviews cannot be generalized, they provided insight into investigations

NCMEC takes steps to obtain feedback from law enforcement on the usefulness of CyberTipline reports; however, it does not systematically collect information on how useful individual reports are for initiating and advancing investigations or about information gaps that limit reports' usefulness. For instance, NCMEC solicits feedback via e-mail or in person quarterly from federal law enforcement liaisons at NCMEC about the overall usefulness of CyberTipline reports. However, according to many law enforcement officials GAO contacted, information in a CyberTipline report may not contain an image of apparent child pornography or may contain old data. NCMEC officials said that they are interested in obtaining additional feedback to enhance the usefulness of its reports and could explore additional methods to gather such information, such as creating a systematic process for obtaining feedback from federal law enforcement. Enhancing its processes for collecting feedback on the usefulness of CyberTipline reports could help NCMEC ensure that reports are as useful as possible to law enforcement. Existing deconfliction mechanisms generally prevent pursuit of the same suspects but are fragmented; DOJ is in the early stages of developing a system to address this fragmentation. Many law enforcement officials GAO contacted reported using various nonautomated (e.g., task forces) and automated (e.g., investigative systems) mechanisms to avoid duplication of effort in investigations. But these officials reported that there is not a single automated system that provides comprehensive case information and deconfliction, which can contribute to difficulties coordinating investigations. As mandated in the Act, DOJ is developing a national system to, among other things, provide law enforcement with a single deconfliction tool. Specifically, DOJ is conducting a needs assessment--which it plans to complete in 12 to 24 months--to use as a basis for system development. However, because DOJ is waiting on the results of the needs assessment to begin system development, it may be several years before the system is operational. Backlogs in the forensic analysis of digital evidence can delay or hinder online child pornography investigations; assessing the costs and benefits of taking extra steps to ensure the integrity of forensic analysis could help determine if there are efficiencies that could reduce backlogs. Forensic analysis of digital evidence consists of the review of information from digital media, such as hard drives, and can prove online child pornography crime. Several factors may contribute to backlogs in forensic analysis, including the steps federal law enforcement agencies believe enhance the integrity of analysis, such as making exact copies of digital evidence to discourage tampering. The FBI takes additional steps it believes enhance integrity, such as separating the forensic examination from the investigation. However, some federal officials and prosecutors GAO spoke with differed on the need for such steps. According to DOJ, the national strategy's working group is in a good position to address backlog issues and having this group assess the costs and benefits of steps taken to ensure the integrity of forensic analysis could help it determine potential efficiencies that could reduce backlogs. GAO recommends that NCMEC enhance its processes to collect feedback to improve tips and that DOJ assess the costs and benefits of steps agencies take to ensure the integrity of forensic analysis. NCMEC and DOJ generally concurred with our recommendations and discussed actions to address them.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information. Status as of November 13, 2013.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that DOJ fulfills its obligations as outlined in the PROTECT Our Children Act of 2008 as well as enhance its ability to address online crimes against children, the Attorney General should define the steps it plans to take and time frames for completing the three provisions of the Act that it has not yet implemented.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: We found that National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) CyberTipline reports were increasing and that the FBI and other law enforcement officials found the reports were not always useful for initiating law enforcement actions such as obtaining subpoenas. As a result, we recommended that NCMEC work with law enforcement customers to enhance its processes to collect feedback from law enforcement about the usefulness and quality of individual CyberTipline reports. In March 2011, NCMEC met with DOJ to discuss methods to improve the information collected on CyberTipline referrals as well as the process in which NCMEC obtains the information. NCMEC subsequently revised the CyberTipline feedback form to include a section requesting input on the usefulness of the report. In addition, NCMEC is developing a systematic process to obtain feedback via its case management tool, which among other things may reduce the time it takes law enforcement to provide feedback. NCMEC is currently testing system implementation and plans to make these enhancements available to its customers by Spring 2014. NCMEC's revised CyberTipline feedback process and planned system enhancements are consistent with our recommendations.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that NCMEC maximizes the feedback it receives from law enforcement agencies about the usefulness of CyberTipline reports in initiating and advancing investigations, the NCMEC's Chief Executive Officer should work with its law enforcement customers to enhance its processes to collect feedback from law enforcement about the usefulness and quality of individual CyberTipline reports and use this information to make any necessary improvements it identifies.

    Agency Affected: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information. Status as of November 13, 2013.

    Recommendation: To help address backlogs in forensic analysis of digital evidence conducted in support of investigations and prosecutions of online child pornography crime, the Attorney General should direct the National Strategy Working Group and its Technical Assistance Subcommittee to assess the costs and benefits of the various steps federal law enforcement agencies believe enhance the integrity of forensic analysis of digital evidence in investigating online child pornography crimes, which may be quantitative or qualitative, to identify any efficiencies in the processes agencies use to help them to make more informed decisions on the efficient allocation of limited forensic resources.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

 

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