Taking crowdsourcing to the next level, the federal government unveiled a new "predator app" Thursday that is designed to enlist Americans in urgent hunts for potential sex predators by pushing photos and descriptions of suspects onto their mobile phones.
The app, released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, allows tips to be reported anonymously 24 hours a day, builds on a recent program where the agency has released photos of people it believes are involved in child pornography or sex abuse. That program already has helped snare several alleged predators and rescue children from those situations, ICE said.
"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," said ICE acting Director John Sandweg. "These investigations are one of our highest priorities, and in today's world, we need to be technologically savvy and innovative in our approach."
ICE officials highlighted the most urgent case the app will profile right now: an unknown suspect they believe is producing child pornography with a girl who appears to be 10 to 12 years old.
The agency released a photo and description of the man from videos: "The four videos show the prepubescent girl being sexually abused by an adult male with short brown hair and blue eyes. In the videos, the offender has a full beard and wears glasses. Both he and the child are seen in room with wood paneled walls with framed photos, a black computer, desk with sewing machine and brown patterned curtains."
Crowdsourcing, or harnessing the broader public to help out, is not new — not even to policing.
In 2010, the Seattle Police Department launched a Twitter account listing cars that have been stolen, so residents can report them if they see them. The site has 1,642 followers and has issued 8,129 tweets.
In the most famous incident earlier this year, the FBI asked the public to help after the Boston Marathon bombing, requesting those who were there to send in photos and videos that might help identify suspects.
But the exercise had an unfortunate side-effect. Internet users began to post and search through photos themselves and try to identify the culprits. Press reports said that effort led to wrong people being suspected.
The Operation Predator App, as ICE has dubbed it, is available on Apple's iTunes or App Store now, and the agency said it plans to expand the app to other smartphones soon.
The app is currently age-restricted, which means Apple requires users to certify they are at least 17 years of age to download it.
The app allows people to easily share the latest alerts on their own social media profiles or to email them around to friends, tapping their own networks to help authorities.
The project grew out of the success ICE has had harnessing social media to catch predators over the past year.
ICE began sharing images taken from apparent child pornography videos and photos and asked the public for help in identifying the people involved, and they were impressed by how eager the public was to help.
"We'd get actionable intelligence on the location and identities of these individuals literally hours after we shared their photos through traditional and social media," said Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for ICE. "The idea for the app grew out of those experiences. We saw how valuable it was to utilize citizens as force multipliers for our investigators in these situations."
In addition to sending around the latest potential predator cases, the app also will highlight other wanted fugitives.
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