Monday, October 14, 2013

The Global Crime & Sex Syndicates & the Internet

On a recent trip to a foreign country, I had the opportunity to meet with a leading law enforcement official of a major city who provided a glimpse into a typical “global ground zero” problem – a poverty racked slum area where drugs and sex intersect with the vulnerable poor of the world.  This location was one of countless other locations around the globe that are incubators feeding organized crime and terror.   Here, the buildings were ramshackle, itinerant men and woman, mostly young, mingled about in the shadows as drug and sex were sold in a virtual open market environment.    From a security camera we were able to observe in a matter of moments a potentially violent sexual act about to occur in a public area.  Police were called in and the two were arrested.   But this small incident is one of hundreds occurring every day.  Law enforcement can do little but standby and contain the area and address only the most egregious of situations.  In that moment, I had a realization.  These areas of abject poverty are merely a reflection of a greater disturbing global reality.  This city in a far-away place was connected to the US, and we connected to it in profound ways.   It is the money generated from the sale of illicit drugs, human trafficking and pornography that is undoubtedly financing the continuing growth of increasingly complex and interconnected global criminal and terror organizations.  These organizations have worldwide reach and shadow connectivity through the power of the internet.  Perhaps this is not a major revelation given that it has been printed elsewhere, but it takes on a new meaning when directly faced with the reality of poverty from the eyes of law enforcement.   For most, slums are not areas visited by tourists, and in most instances great efforts are made to keep tourists from “unsafe” areas and likewise to keep inhabitants of these from secure tourism areas.  This is done for good reason, but in another way it does a great disservice because it hides from the eyes of the well to do the reality of the rising criminal exploitation of global poverty.  Simply put, whether it is drugs, prostitution or pornography, these seemingly victimless vices are hardly that.  They are fed by the exploitation of the poor at ground zero.
After my visit, I conducted a few simple Google Searches.  The first search was the name of the subject country plus the search term “woman”.  This search returned numerous “dating” and “marriage” sites aimed at foreigners.   It seemed rather obvious that these sites, for the most part, were thin veneers for sex tourism.    Any business man or tourist on a visit could seemingly be easily arranged with a young woman for a “date”.   I next conducted a search with the country name in question coupled with the not overly explicit term for a woman’s chest – a rather basic search that would be performed by any overly inquisitive male youth in Anytown, USA.   Google images returned literally thousands of explicit images most of which were considerably more graphic than the search term implied.    A quick review of the search displayed several disturbing things.  A subjective assessment of the first two pages of Google’s image returns suggested that as many as 20% of the images could contain young woman of questionable age – meaning a reasonable person might question whether the subject’s age is over majority or the images were intended to convey youthfulness.  [Notably, Google has listed several image removals in the return footer, but by clicking on the notice, all were for DCMA copyright violations…from other image owners]. 
Following one Google return image with a young woman and a man in an explicit act, Google forwarded me to a web site which purported to be a blog.  The site titles were explicit and referred to “teens” from the geographic area in question.   I chose not to investigate any further.   Rather, I chose to pursue the underlying blog platform provider.  But as I encountered this, it became clear that young woman throughout the world offer an endless supply of victims for this insidious industry and the poor are incredibly vulnerable.  [Editor Note:  After a lot of researching to find a way to report objectionable material to Google, I found that the Google linked to the National Center for Missing Children (NCMC) -  I did report my concerns about the site in question.  But, this editor wonders why it is so difficult to report offensive images.  I discuss this further below.]
Beyond the presence of the material on the blog, the blog itself struck me for what is was in relation to the problem at hand.  It is a rapid web page creating, editing and posting technology that provides a means to pump out illicit materials quickly and make them globally available in an instant.   Once out on the internet, images are copied, reposted and linked to in many ways, and automated search engine crawlers quickly find, index and make them available in search returns.  A review of the underlying sex blog platform revealed it was created several years ago, and its express aim is to allow for the rapid creation of sex oriented blog sites which cannot be created or maintained on popular blog sites (A simple footer at the bottom of the blog site contains a button to report complaints, at best a token effort to avoid complicity with those spawning pornography).  This blog platform is likely one of a great number available.  While blogging technology is no longer deemed cutting edge, a glimpse into the power of technology is offered in its ability to enable large scale illicit activities with relative ease.  With new social technologies like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram which allow photos and videos to be posted immediately to the internet and subscribers to view them, the power to proliferate pornography is virtually unlimited and uncontrollable.  In a recent conversation with a board member of a private Christian school and I was shocked to learn that there was a problem with 6th graders and “selfies”.    Apparently, there were a large number of young girls sending out unsuitable photos of themselves to friends using Instagram.    One would expect a Christian private school to be an environment that encourages self-control, moral behavior and boundaries, but the presence of internet connected camera phones makes it so easy to produce explicit photos and share them, there are no longer any barriers and in their absence even those inculcated with morals and ethics feel free and empowered to abandon them.  
It would seem axiomatic that for every woman exploited on the internet, there are equal or greater numbers still that are being abused through local prostitution, sex tourism, and human trafficking.  The presence of drugs serves to addict, undermine and enslave the poor, not only taking what little money they have but serving as vehicle to a criminal lifestyles controlled by their masters in exchange for the next fix.   For other innocents, the entry into this world is not their own doing.  They are forcibly taken or fraudulently induced into captivity through friends and associates working on behalf of local criminals often connect to larger criminal enterprises.   Often, the prospects of apparently legitimate employment opportunities in the hospitality and retail industry are used to attract low skilled workers only to find out later there is no real job and they are to be held against their will and placed into prostitution.   Using the stigma of sex slavery and also illegal immigrant status, these young victims feel trapped in hopelessness, being ashamed to contact family and friends and afraid to contact law enforcement. 
So, what can we make of this?  The notion that pornography and illegal drugs are victimless crimes seems to be fundamentally wrong.  There is a clear nexus between criminal drug activity, sex crimes and pornography.  Where one is, the other is likely to be found.  The sources of these victims are found in places of poverty around the globe.  The victimization is global in nature not only because the internet allows for global distribution, but because internet connectivity and global commerce enables affiliations of criminal and terror groups that can work in concert over large distances.  The means, methods and opportunities are all present with little to no barriers, and detection is difficult.
With respect to the United States, the demand and use of illegal drugs and the unlimited access to pornography and ability to shop for prostitutes via the internet serves to fuel these destructive organizations.    The internet has placed the poor in far-away places in the cross hairs of web sites and search engines and there are plenty of bad actors willing to exploit this at the expense of the ultimate victims - the poor, young and helpless trapped in grinding poverty.   
While efforts have been focused on making voluntary search filters available to users, it seems that the problem is bigger than selective search filters.  For example, Google’s “safe search” can be applied and it will filter out explicit and obscene material with generally good results.  However, it is as simple as changing a setting with one click to remove the protection.   More problematic still is that while we wish to avoid censorship and promote free expression, the ability to embed potentially unlawful images in web sites and return them in searches is a major concern, especially with respect to the exploitation of underage children.  There is simply no means available to validate whether an image is the product of exploitation, whether it involves minors, unlawful imprisonment, coercion or other unlawful conduct.  Thus, as a general question, we must ask ourselves whether the content has any real value or legitimate public interest when weighed against the risks and harms present to victims. 
One possible means of beginning to control this problem is by blocking key words associated with images that are intended to convey or suggest illegal content.  This would require search engines and ISPs to challenge the propriety of content with a presumption that it should not be published if there is a suggestion of illegal content.  Another means of controlling proliferation of illicit content would be for search engines to establish a database of illicit images and video content, and to provide the public with a prominent way to report illicit or suspect content.    
Overall, general awareness is an important aspect of reigning in this global exploitation problem.  While pornography has become increasingly accepted and common place in our society, it has gained acceptance in the absence of awareness of the human toll upon its victims in far-away places.  Perhaps for those search engines that really desire to make a difference, their advertising platforms could be harnessed to provide counter-messages regarding exploitation, missing woman and other compelling social messages that would make viewers think twice.   It would seem that technology has created a supply side problem and it is fueling demand and consumption.   The ability to empower users to turn away by volition (through both blocking and informative technology) will begin to put a dent in the global syndicates that derive financial reward from these activities. Doing so is on our best interest because these global criminal organizations and their increasing association with terror groups are ultimately a threat to our own security.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Kenya Mall Terror Attack Reinforces a Disturbing Pattern

"Mall Security" Photo Attribution: Creative Commons - Share Alike 2.5
By:  Joe Mazzarella, S.V.P. & Chief Counsel

The ongoing terrorist siege of a Kenyan Mall offers another clue in the evolving strategy of radical Islamist terrorists. As I have previously written, the Mumbai Hotel attacks represented an evolutionary step in terror thinking. With the hardening and increased security around air transportation, terrorists have changed tactics and moved to other more vulnerable civilian targets. Generally, places of routine mass public gathering are becoming more alluring targets because of the general ease of access, high concentration of potential victims and relative light security.
While different from the multi-pronged coordinated Mumbai attack, the Kenyan Mall attack bears a similar signature because it was a commando style terror operation with reportedly up to fifteen well-armed terrorists. The attackers are members of Al Shabaab, a Somali terrorist organization linked to al Qaeda. Information is being reported that the attackers are multi-nationals, which includes United States and European persons. At least 62 are confirmed dead, and another 175 injured. As of this writing, Kenyan security forces are entering the fourth day of engagement and have not yet taken full control of the mall. An unknown number of hostages are being held which is undoubtedly complicating matters for security forces.

As this gruesome terror event unfolds, several early key observations can be made. First, the attack carries another commando style signature with a large number of attackers applying overwhelming force to a public place. Any reasonable form of onsite security (whether armed security guards or local police presence) would have been outnumbered and out gunned. Second, the attackers employed a revenge based terror operation where death and mayhem is the aim in itself rather than hostage taking to achieve a worldwide political stage as was the predominant motivation in the last century. Hostage taking in this case, like Mumbai, was a secondary tactic to blunt a security response to the initial attack. Third, security forces again showed themselves unable to muster an effective early tactical response to the attack. The reasons for this remain unknown but we can suspect they are similar to past events where numerous local, regional and federal law enforcement agencies and military and special anti-terror organizations respond en masse but are unable to communicate effectively, lack information and lack command and control to organize and undertake a coordinated response. If anything, it is well understood that in the case of an active shooter scenario, time is of the essence and immediate engagement of attackers is critical to limit loss of life. In the case of active shooters in places of mass public gathering, it is necessary to quickly engage suspects with deadly force to deny freedom of movement and their ability to seek out and target more victims.

In order to maximize quick response tactics, the ability to see and hear inside of the place where the attack is unfolding is crucial.   A lack of information as to what is occurring, where is it occurring, and by whom and how many, creates indecision, delays in response and de-leverages response assets and personnel. In the Kenya Mall attack case, like in the Mumbai terror attacks, real time information from inside the mall was and is available from victims via mobile phones and other recording devices. Also, security surveillance cameras inside the mall can provide critical views of the scene inside.  Being able to share this video on-demand with first responders is a critical tool in enabling a quick assessment of the situation, identifying potential suspects, assessing their weaponry, and locating and tracking their position and movements.   Being able to seamlessly communicate among multiple responding security forces, and also to enabling communications between victims on the inside and first responders on the ground provides invaluable up to the minute intelligence. These capabilities are critical force multipliers and provide security forces with the ability to organize, gain tactical striking advantage and adapt in real time in order to bring maximum force to attackers and quickly size uncontested space and extend protection to those who may come under threat.

The ability to thwart a large scale command style attack on a public space may not always be preventable, but the ability to limit loss of life and subdue attackers more quickly and effectively is achievable. Placing adequate numbers of well-armed security personnel at every public gathering space is neither affordable nor practical. However, ensuring real time interoperable communications and multimedia sharing among security forces, emergency support agencies and critical infrastructure during a crisis can be achieved with minimal cost and can vastly improve response effectiveness. For the United States, we must remain vigilant and prepare for attacks of this nature. It would seem to be only a matter of time before an event similar to the Kenyan Mall attack or Mumbai hotel attack will occur. The ability for a dozen or more foreign terrorists to enter into the country and bring high power, high capacity weapons undetected through our borders remains a serious threat vector. Once inside the country, the ability to plan and organize an attack becomes easier especially in larger metropolitan areas with diverse multi-ethnic and multi-national populations where residents are less likely notice the presence of foreigners as anomalous or unusual. Special attention should be paid to in-door malls and large scale hotels that have limited public access points and create bottleneck environments. One of the surest ways to reduce loss of life is to provide more means of quick egress. This notion is contrary to popular concepts of retail design where physical space and pedestrian flow is designed to keep shoppers inside the shopping space as long as possible before exiting.

Because large scale malls tend to be in suburban metro areas, it is worthy to note that the quick reaction and special tactical units maintained by larger city police forces are not in immediate proximity to the mall and generally lighter armed, local area law enforcement personnel will be the first responders on scene. The ability to quickly gather intelligence from security guards inside the mall and from security cameras will be essential to maximize an effective immediate engagement and also allow for heavier armed and trained anti-terror personnel to respond as soon as they arrive on scene. Coordinating with local hospitals and trauma centers, EMS and emergency transport will also require coordination so that victims are quickly extracted, triaged and moved to the nearest hospitals. Even basic traffic control and securing unimpeded routes becomes a matter of life and death and requires coordination from the mall to medical facilities.

In recalling the Boston Marathon bombing tragedy, it is widely recognized that emergency response was exceptional with marathon route areas quickly secured and bombing victims quickly attended to, stabilized and transported to local trauma facilities. But, we should not be deceived by this extraordinary response. In that case, emergency personnel were pre-deployed for the event. Medical staff was on hand. A large police and fire force was deployed on route, and massive emergency response pre-planning occurred, including event specific communications. The same will not be the case in the event of a large scale attack on a mall or public place of routine mass gathering. There are too many and they are everywhere. In these cases, should an unexpected large scale terror event unfold there will be a massive response that will follow and there will be a need to adapt to the place and events occurring on the ground. Flexible and agile seamless inter-agency communications and information sharing will be essential in organizing an effective response. Effective communications and accurate real time information sharing remains the linchpin to improved safety and security and an enhanced emergency response. The capability exists to enable what is needed to make our communities interoperable. Once again, another tragic incident reinforces the urgency of this need.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Real Time Interoperability for School Safety - Active Shooter Response

School safety remains a nationwide focus after the tragic events at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut. Many jurisdictions are actively investigating various ways to improve and prevent similar events. As we all know, school related shootings are becoming an all too familiar event, and can happen in any type of community.
Hartford School Active Shooter Exercise - All rights Reserved. Mutualink, Inc
Mutualink participated in the first post-Sandy Hook active shooter drill, which took place in Hartford, Ct. This exercise involved the Hartford Police, a Hartford school, the Hartford EOC, Saint Francis Hospital and other agencies. Through Mutualink multiple responding agencies' and the school's communications systems were instantly bridged and video from inside the school was shared with both command and ground responders providing real time situational awareness. The exercise demonstrated how real time communications and real time video can be used to more effectively respond to an active shooter crisis. In these types of events, more information and quicker response can save lives. This capability should be an essential part of any modern school safety response framework. An article regarding our School Safety - Active Shooter Exercise was published in Law & Order Magazine and also was submitted before Connecticut's School Safety Committee. Below are links to the article. Law & Order Magazine - School Safety Article link is here: Connecticut School Safety Commission Article link is here: Should any one who is concerned about school safety be interested in learning more, please feel free to contact me.