This week’s post was meant to be about darknet markets, exit scams, shifting trends in sales and delivery of illicit goods – but there was a sudden change of plans.
The leitmotiv of this message is a multi-layered one:
- child sexual abuse material online is a huge problem and a growing one;
- literally anybody can help combat this crime through meaningful engagement with selected sources and platforms;
- it feels like despite concerted international efforts there just isn’t enough being done.
So let’s all try to do more – starting with some context.
In 2017 Europol launched the Stop Child Abuse – Trace An Object campaign. Through coordinating various law enforcement efforts, Europol holds a database containing well over 40 million of images depicting child abuse material, from all over the world.
Like always, policing never happens in a vacuum, so Europol created a dedicated link:
There members of the public can examine items of interest extracted and isolated from illegal content and send anonymous tips to Europol indicating any useful information they might have regarding these objects.
The Irish police force An Garda Síochána actively participates in national and international efforts aimed at combating online child abuse. This is probably one of the most important and one of the most underestimated areas of policing in a majority of police organisations.
Personally, during my time spent working in the Garda National Cyber Crime Bureau I regularly contributed to the Trace an Object campaign (and still do so to this day!) and I would wholeheartedly encourage everyone to do the same.
Any time you’re just aimlessly scrolling through news websites, Facebook or Twitter, dedicate a couple of minutes to having a quick look at the above Europol link – something you see there might trigger a train of thought in your head, which can then lead to a child somewhere else in the world being identified and rescued from sexual abuse.
I can think of very few other ways of spending your time online that are as productive and positive as using OSINT to help solve online crimes against children.
Europol’s initiative is a relatively new one, but already it has been highly valued by non-governmental organisations such as the US-based National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse, which credits the Trace An Object initiative with (as of today) successfully identifying and rescuing 10 children in various locations around the world.
Absolutely anybody can do this and absolutely anybody anywhere in the world can help.
This type of OSINT and visual photo examination or identification is an area of online activity where an ordinary person, an average user, a non-technical mother of two, a pensioner with an old laptop can excel and outperform even a seasoned digital investigator.
This week I spoke back and forth with a veteran Reddit user by the nickname ViciousNakedMoleRat who has been involved hands on with visual photo ID of items featured on the Europol’s website.
He/she agreed to share his methodology here.
So let’s hear it.
One object I identified was the Green Day poster, which is probably the reason why you’re reaching out to me in the first place.
In this case, the information provided by Europol already stated, “This is a poster on a blue wall, have you seen it before?” – so it was clear that we were dealing with a poster.
What I noticed first, was that the person on the poster seemed to be wearing a black suit and – judging by the sleeve length and width – a badly fitted one at that.
The person was also positioned closely to the edge of the poster, if we take into account how much bigger the poster had to be to fit his entire torso, head and some dead space on top.
That gave me the idea that there may likely be at least one more person on that poster. Lastly, I have some experience with these Europol drops and these snippets tend to be from photos or videos that are 10-25 years old.
I don’t know the exact procedure, but Europol states “For all images below, every other investigative avenue has already been examined.” and I assume this means the specific case has been cold for quite some time. (I think this is a mistake by Europol and many more cases could be solved or at least revived, if they provided more recent objects.)
Adding all of this together – a poster, a badly fitting black suit, at least two or three people and 10+ years old – I had an idea what I might be looking for; a poster of some alternative/rock/punk band that was popular with men (since most of these cases involve male suspects) in the 90s or 00s.
I had already a few bands in mind, but wanted to go for a random search first, before going through them one by one. So I simply went to Google image search and just typed the most basic assumptions “rock band suits poster”, hit enter, scrolled past The Beatles, Queen and Kiss, and there was the suit with the hand.
It was literally in the 9th row of this simple search query. I downloaded the image and distorted it in photoshop, to simulate the angle at which it was recorded or photographed and it came out as a perfect match.
With other objects, especially ones where I have absolutely no idea what I’m even looking at, it is often harder than with the poster.
However, with some experience, one can get the hang of it. When it comes to images that feature blurry text, it’s often a communal effort and people try to compare the different options they were able to guess from the image. Sometimes you get so focused on recognising one blurry letter as an “H” that it takes someone else’s input to see that it may as well be a “K”. The community is definitely super helpful in those instances.
A good example for this is the blue Barrabrava wristband, which was identified two months ago. If you sort the comments by old, you can really see the progress throughout the comment section:
What I personally use to help identify blurry letters is pretty simple. I download the image either onto my laptop or my smartphone and then use Photoshop or an image editing app, like Snapseed or just the regular Photos app, to adjust the image, increase contrast, sharpen the edges (unsharp mask in Photoshop) etc. to try to achieve a result that is a bit easier to decipher.
One software I’ve been trying to use as well is Topaz Sharpen AI, since it can do wonders with some really blurry and out of focus images.
Unfortunately, it has big problems with compression artifacts and all the Europol cutouts on white background, since it probably requires more information for the AI to function correctly.
For a few images it does provide a significant improvement, however. Once the text is (partially) deciphered, I go to google and use quotation marks to search for the specific text or text fragment. If the image features other clues, such as the text being on something like a football jersey, I may add football or soccer or jersey or kit to my search query.
Those, of course, not in quotation marks, to not limit the search query too much. Next, there are images of specific t-shirts or pants that have a distinct pattern or color palette but no other features.
Those are extremely hard to identify and require somebody to recognize the design or similarities to a certain brand or team. This is made harder by the fact that many of these images are many years or decades old and even if someone remembers something, it can be difficult or impossible to find a match online.
Finally, there are t-shirts, pants and other pieces of clothing with pictures or graphics on them. For those, I sometimes try to use Google Lens (in the Photos app) to figure out what it could be.
It’s rarely ever successful, since the image quality is often not good enough, the pictures are too distorted or the picture is not detectable for other reasons.
I still try to use it, since it literally only takes 10 seconds. The next method is to start searching google for specific keywords that would be used to describe a stock image of this type.
For example, there was a recent drop with an orange tanktop with a blue graphic on it:
I got to the thread just after the first comment had been posted, stating, “Is definitely a logo of a vintage motorcycle racer.” and I could immediately see that.
So, I went to Google image search, and searched for “vintage motorcycle race stock”.
I couldn’t find it, but found an image that was somewhat similar to what I was looking for:
Which I then clicked on, to start searching for related images.
If you click on the link, the first few related pictures will not show you anything of interest, but if you click on “see more”, in one of the first rows, you will see this image:
This is exactly the one on the tank top. So, sometimes, when you don’t immediately find what you are looking for, you can use related images, to get closer and closer to the goal.
It doesn’t always work, but it’s a pretty helpful tool. When I went back to the comments, to post this, another user had already shared the exact same find.
One thing that may be interesting to your readers is that slight changes in keywords can really make a difference here.
If you’re searching for “VINTAGE motorcycle race stock”, you will need to scroll down quite far to find this specific image and the further you have to scroll, the more likely it is to miss it.
However, if you’re searching for “RETRO motorcycle race stock”, you will find it as one of the first images.
The last category I’m interested in is locations, but I would refer you to various articles by Bellingcat, which explain in great detail how this works.