A new, free smartphone app was launched Thursday nationwide to help locate sexual predators and rescue kids from sexual abuse and exploitation.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement app is part of the Homeland Security’s Operation Predator, which is designed to protect children from all forms of sexual predators. The app is the first of its kind to be used by federal law enforcement, according to ICE officials.
There are four windows in the app: a home page for reporting a tip online or by calling; a alert page with pictures, names when available and descriptions of suspects and crimes; a news feed with stories of crimes and rescues; and a partners page with links to other agencies who work on child exploitation crimes.
“I think it will close the gap on reporting information by private citizens to law enforcement,” said Michael Harris, ICE Homeland Security Investigations assistant special agent in charge. “I’m hoping this app will increase reporting by the general public.”
This app was created because of social media’s public information role in a generation of smartphones, tablets and constant connectivity.
“Social media is one of the best ways to get out information,” Harris said. “I think that was part of the designing of the app — find something that engages the general public to help us with the investigation.”
The target of child sexual abuse for the app and social media’s foray into solving crimes was chosen because of the vulnerability of children compared to adults, according to Harris.
“This app is important because because children are our most vulnerable victims. It gives them the priority time to conduct these investigations,” he said.
Quick reporting leads to timely investigations which are critical for child sex-abuse crimes.
“When children are being sexually abused and exploited, it’s a race against the clock to rescue the child and bring the predator to justice,” John Sandweg, acting director of ICE, said in a press release. “These investigations are one of our highest priorities, and in today’s world, we need to be technologically savvy and innovative in our approach.”
Officials hope the app will help identify a man seen in four videos obtained by a search warrant sexually abusing a 10- to 12-year-old girl. Homeland Security and ICE do not have his name or address and are turning to the public for assistance.
Interpol turned over the first of the videos to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in 2006, which shows a man with blue eyes, short brown hair, glasses and a beard abusing a young girl. The room in the video had wood paneling with framed photos, a black computer, brown patterned curtains and a desk with a sewing machine.
Still photos from the video of the unidentified man and the room are available on the app, along with several other known sexual predators and suspects. No images of victims are shown.
In Nevada, the increased reporting would help the Las Vegas child exploitation unit, made up of special agents with ICE and Homeland Security, which focuses on crimes against children via the internet, Harris said.
The unit works with state and local law enforcement, and all Las Vegas tips are forwarded to them as they work with the appropriate agencies. The app does not have a geographic function because predators could be anywhere, Harris said.
He is hoping this app will help “some of the vulnerable young teens involved in sex trafficking, or any other crimes for that matter,” he said.
Las Vegas does not have a higher number of sexual abuse crimes, according to Harris.
“I don’t think we’re any different than any other major city as far as (crimes against) minors,” he said.
The app also contains pictures and information about known fugitives involved in child sex abuse and exploitation, sends out alerts about wanted predators, has a share tool for email and social media and a news feed for arrests and prosecution news.
Currently, the app is only available for the iPhone, but an Andriod version is in the works.
The government won’t collect any data from people reporting anonymous tips, according to Harris.
Anyone with information about the profiled fugitives can report anonymously through the app, by phone or online, 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 866-347-2423 in the U.S. and 802-872-6199 worldwide, or online at www.ice.gov/tips. The tipline can be used to report any type of crime.
Suspected child sexual exploitation or missing children may be reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, an Operation Predator partner, via its toll-free 24-hour hotline, 800-843-5678.