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Protecting Our Children

According to a study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, approximately 300,000 children in the United States become victims of sex trafficking each year, and Georgia is far from immune.

The illegal sex economy in Atlanta alone was valued at $290 million in 2007, up $52 million from just four years earlier, according to a 2014 report from The Urban Institute. That makes Atlanta’s sex economy the largest in the United States.

A big contributor to the increase? Technology. And that is where the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) comes in.

The GBI’s “Crimes against Children” unit is comprised of digital forensic investigators devoted to working child pornography and child sex trafficking cases. These investigators are experts in cybercrime and are trained to extract digital evidence from computers, cellphones and other electronic devices.

When Gov. Nathan Deal announced the establishment of the Hull McKnight Georgia Cyber Center, a cybersecurity facility where public and private organizations will partner to meet the workforce demands of the growing cybersecurity industry, he detailed a plan to incorporate the GBI into the center.

“We will have a GBI cybercrime lab in the center, and the governor has included funding for nine staff,” said GBI Director Vernon Keenan. “The center is built for 25 to 30 employees, so at some point we’ll increase GBI presence.”

He says this move to the Georgia Cyber Center will not only double the GBI’s capacity to handle criminal investigations, it will also increase its ability to train others.

For 15 years, the GBI has offered law enforcement fellowships, widening the net, so to speak, by training investigators from over 220 law enforcement agencies in the state of Georgia to protect children from online predators.

Officers participating in the fellowship program work directly with the GBI on child pornography cases and receive training on best practices for conducting these cases. When they return to their agencies, they have the capacity to conduct training in their communities, widening the net even more.

Keenan and his team also plan to continue offering an internship program for students in the University System of Georgia. Offered since 1972, the internship will give interns the opportunity to spend a semester working with GBI investigators in the Georgia Cyber Center, getting hands-on experience with digital forensic investigators in real-world scenarios.

“The internship program for university students allows them to have real-life experience working criminal investigations and cyber crime investigations,” Keenan said. “The students are working side-by-side with criminal investigators. It’ll be a unique opportunity because it’ll be a specialty field within general criminal investigations.”

Dr. Kim Davies, chair of the Department of Social Sciences at Augusta University, which houses its Criminal Justice program, welcomes the internship opportunities for students — and their new proximity in Augusta.

“This program will offer our students a chance to receive hands-on experience in law enforcement investigations while also providing the opportunity for them to make a real difference,” she said.

Keenan is excited about the new opportunities the GBI will have as a resident in the Georgia Cyber Center and believes the GBI will have increased capacity to make a dent in sex trafficking and other crimes against children.

“We think that this will be an extremely valuable project for our agencies, the state of Georgia and local communities,” he said. “This is an opportunity for us to have a direct partnership with private industry and with federal partners in the Georgia Cyber Center.”

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