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How does Queenie do it? Detecting Child Sex Abuse Images


Queenie, a 4-year-old English Labrador retriever, is on the front lines in the fight against online child sexual exploitation.

Um, a dog?

We know law enforcement uses specially trained dogs to perform many vital tasks: searching for someone who’s missing; comforting traumatized victims; detecting illicit drugs, cadavers, explosives, and accelerants. But for online child sexual exploitation?

To understand how Queenie helps, you need to understand the crime. Millions of images and videos of children being sexually abused, even raped, have flooded the internet. Those who produce or collect and trade these horrific images, known as child sexual abuse material (CSAM), often store them on electronic devices – and then hide them.

When law enforcement officers obtain a warrant to search a suspect's home, they're increasingly using dogs like Queenie, after they conduct an initial search, to look for devices they may have missed. Known as K-9 electronic detection dogs, they've been taught to detect the vapor that emits from electronic storage devices, which is odorless to humans.

“The bad guys have gotten really good at hiding these devices,” said Shelley Kowalczyk, who is Queenie’s handler. “Humans are looking past items hidden in plain sight. We have to be more methodical with our search.”

queenie and her handler, shelley

Queenie and her handler, Shelley Kowalczyk; Photo: Claire Edkins

Kowalczyk, who works for Veterans Lab Services (VSL) in Linthicum, Maryland, recently brought Queenie to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) for a demonstration. Before Queenie was introduced to our staff, Kowalczyk hid electronic devices around our headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, including inside a Coke can with a false bottom, a wall outlet, a cell phone, and a tiny toy car.

“Let’s go to work – seek!” Kowalczyk instructs Queenie, and off she goes. Very quickly, Queenie detects something and immediately sits in front of it as she’s been trained to do. “Show me!” says Kowalczyk. Queenie then touches her nose to the toy car. Kowalczyk reveals the thumb drive that’s concealed inside. After a treat, Queenie gets back to work, finding every device Kowalczyk has hidden. 

Watch Queenie searching; Video: Samantha Banavong

In addition to thumb or flash drives, these electronic devices containing CSAM can be hidden cameras, Micro-SD cards, air tags, cell phones, SIM cards, and hard drives. Electronic detection K-9s have found them in all kinds of places – buried in a container of coins in a junk drawer, in smoke detectors, behind walls or in ceilings, under beds. During a search, investigators turn off any circulating air so the scent isn’t thrown off.

queenie searching for csam

Queenie searches NCMEC headquarters for electronic devices; Photo: Claire Edkins

Certified electronic detection K-9s, used around the world, find additional devices about 75 percent of the time, Kowalcyzk says. In this country, they’re primarily being used by Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task forces, which are comprised of local, state, and federal law enforcement officers. Of the 61 ICACs in the U.S., with at least one in each state, 41 have access to these specially trained K-9s and the demand for them is growing, she said.

At NCMEC, we operate the CyberTipline, the designated place in the U.S. for the public and electronic service providers to report suspected online child sexual exploitation. Last year alone, we received 32 million reports, nearly all pertaining to CSAM. Our analysts triage them by urgency, then send them to the appropriate ICAC or law enforcement agency for potential investigation in this country and around the world.

At NCMEC, we refer to child sexual abuse images as CSAM, not child pornography, for which children are too young to consent, unlike adult pornography. These images are virtual crime scene photos produced by offenders, not snapshots of babies in a bathtub, and show children as young as infants as they’re being sexually abused. Some of the abuse is live-streamed. Those who produce and distribute these horrific images typically photograph or record children they’re related to or who they know in some way.

Dr. Seth Cowand, director of Digital Forensics at VLS where Queenie and canine colleagues Cleo and Layla are based, said child victims are also found in homes being searched. For that reason, their electronic detection dogs are cross-trained to be comfort dogs and switch hats when they’re needed to comfort victims or family members who become upset during a search.

Owen Pena, an ICAC special agent in New Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office, says his electronic detection dog, Special Agent Joey, a 6-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, has been invaluable when he conducts searches. In one case, agents searched a suspect’s bedroom and came up empty, so Joey was brought in. The dog kept hitting on the bed, Pena said, so he yanked out the built-in drawers and found a laptop concealed underneath them.

“It was full of CSAM,” said Pena, also the ICAC commander for his state. The evidence Joey found that day led to a conviction, said Pena, who believes every ICAC should have access to an electronic detection dog, which can dramatically reduce the time it takes to conduct a thorough search. “If there’s not one in each state, I think they’re fooling themselves not to have one.” Check out Joey’s Instagram page here.

items that can hold csam: water bottle, soda can, charger, plug

CSAM can be hidden in all sorts of items; Photo: Claire Edkins

Joey was trained at Jordan Detection K9, which is based in Indianapolis and is the largest training facility in the country. Owner Todd Jordan, who recently re-certified Queenie for the third time, made national headlines when his first dog trained in electronic detection, Bear, found key evidence in Subway pitchman Jared Fogle’s home. Bear later located evidence in the U.S. Gymnastics Coach Marvin Sharp’s residence and in his gymnasium.

Jordan, a firefighter who originally trained accelerant dogs, started his company in 2014. He’s trained 109 dogs currently being used out in the field to detect electronic devices during searches, with 12 others standing by for his next class. It costs about $15,000 to train both the dog and the handler, he said.

One of his star students was a dog named Earl, who was rescued from a kill shelter twice and deemed untrainable by his owners. But Todd found Earl to be very trainable, and the canine began helping in child sexual exploitation cases in 2016 until his death in December. As an electronic detection dog, the spelling of Earl’s name was more than apropos: URL.

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