“[T]he U.S. Director of National Intelligence has ranked cybercrime as the top national security threat, higher than that of terrorism, espionage, and weapons of mass destruction.” -- Key findings from the U.S. State of Cybercrime Survey, PwC 2014
There are many reasons to be pessimistic about law enforcement in cyberspace. It is an understatement to say that most people worldwide are highly dependent on the internet yet simultaneously uninformed about how to best protect themselves. Cybercriminals and the vulnerabilities they target are unconventional: they transcend security barriers that have traditionally applied only to physical spaces within a nation’s borders or to a government’s defenses. Attacks are evolving at an unprecedented rate and many do not require a high level of expertise to execute. Last year alone, the FBI notified 3,000 companies that their cybersecurity had been compromised.
Despite these daunting challenges, there has been remarkable progress in efforts to combat the violent abuse of children online, from child pornography to sexual tourism. Established specifically to fight this scourge, the FBI-led Violent Crimes Against Children (VCAC) Program is an outstanding example of successful cyber law enforcement operations and should serve as a model for transnational law enforcement cooperation in the digital information age.
Some critics argue that supranational organizations must lead efforts to fight transnational crimes like the abuse of children, but in today’s world those organizations alone will not be sufficient. Although INTERPOL plays a crucial role in identifying victims and coordinating intergovernmental intelligence, its operations are limited to issuing yellow notices, which are insufficient for two reasons. First, yellow notices only occur at the request of one of INTERPOL’s member countries. Therefore, if a case occurs outside of a member country or if the relevant member country does not prioritize the case, a yellow notice will not be requested at all. Second, even when issued, yellow notices ultimately function as non-binding requests for help with no enforcement mechanism. Public-private partnerships such as the Virtual Global Taskforce and regional initiatives like the Cospol Internet Related Child Abusive Material Project are also too limited—the criminal capacity to circumvent these temporary fixes demands a more global scope.
By contrast, VCAC fights the abuse and exploitation of children under FBI’s authority: identifying and rescuing victims, reducing vulnerabilities, and working in close collaboration with partners from at the federal, state, local, tribal, and international level. A key component of VCAC’s mission is strengthening the ability to combat crimes against children in the long term via training, intelligence sharing, technical support, and investigative cooperation with allies.
Unlike the supranational or regional alternatives mentioned above, the FBI has the authority to make arrests. VCAC therefore not only provides useful training and intelligence to partners, but also actively participates in launching, conducting and resolving investigations. VCAC’s operations are not limited to cyberspace, but rather combine virtual presence with on-the-ground efforts to strengthen both capacities.
Though doubt will always exist about the potential depth of cooperation between governments in what is fundamentally a system of international regulatory anarchy, the VCAC International Task Force (VCACITF) has defied the odds. The largest organization of its kind, it operates on an impressive scale with 40 member countries including the Philippines and Thailand, the main problem areas of child sex tourism.
In May 2014, the FBI and the European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) jointly hosted the 3rd VCACITF case coordination meeting, which resulted in far more than an exchange of best practices and institutional cooperation. In addition to creating several new multinational investigations, the meeting also produced sharing of actionable leads on existing priority investigations among participants.
VCACITF has not eliminated all of the problems of transnational law enforcement. Most notably, its 40-country membership may be large relative to other forces, but it includes less than 25% of the international community. While criminals are willing to operate anywhere, the FBI’s jurisdiction is not universal. VCACITF is far from perfect, but it is one of the most valuable law enforcement programs operating today.
As practitioners strive to develop innovative solutions to problems exacerbated by the unique information environment of cyberspace, ranging from corporate espionage to infrastructure-targeting terrorism, they must learn from the experience of the VCAC Program. There is clearly a dire need for law enforcement online: child pornography images on the Internet alone have increased 2,000 percent since 1996. Despite the unique challenges ahead, the VCACITF and VCAC initiatives show that success is still possible. Other law enforcement organizations should take note.
Nicole Bailey is a first-year student in the Global Communication program concentrating in IT and Middle East Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs. She graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in Political Philosophy, Policy, and Law. She can be reached via Twitter @nsunebailey.