The Internet is one of the most innovative and paradigm-shifting inventions in modern human history, but for all of the wonders the Internet creates it also enables some of the darkest crimes in our society.
“The child pornography problem did not exist in a big way until the Internet was created,” says Special Investigator Wayne Becker of the Dent County Sheriff’s Office. “The Internet allows people of a like mind to get together, whether they have good intentions or bad intentions.”
Becker helms the South Central Missouri Computer Crime Task Force, one of the regional units of the Missouri Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. There are a total of 12 ICAC regions in Missouri dedicated to coordinating investigative, forensic and prevention training to fight online child exploitation. Based out of Salem, the South Central ICAC serves eight other counties in addition to Dent, including Crawford, Iron, Phelps, Pulaski, Reynolds, Shannon, Texas and Washington.
“Child pornography use tends to be a spiral downward,” Becker says. “Our job is to catch those downloading child pornography before they take the step of being a hands-on offender. We especially want to shut down those producing and sharing this content on the web. A big goal is to rescue a child who is being actively exploited.”
Becker’s office is an assemblage of computers and monitors which continually hum with activity and flicker action across their screens. Tacked on the office’s wall is the photo of one seven-year-old rescued from exploitation in Canada, thanks to investigative tools Becker himself innovated.
“I try to focus more on the numbers than I do on the titles,” Becker says stoically as one of the computers downloads the information attached to several illicit files with titles too graphic to print.
“Some of this equipment was actually seized from people we caught either producing or downloading child pornography,” Becker says. “I built this computer myself using a case seized from one of our worst cases. I am glad most of the perpetrators use laptops though, because I would not have the space to store all of the evidence otherwise.”
Becker’s evidence closet is indeed filled to the brim with seized laptops, hard drives, monitors and other equipment.
“It’s funny to read some of their conversations online because these guys think they are safe,” Becker says. “They think their anonymous and have no idea I already have all their information.”
Becker’s primary duty is to investigate and monitor the anonymous edges of the Internet called the dark web. The dark web is an assemblage of closed, peer-to-peer networks designed to make tracing and user identification difficult, which many take advantage of to share illicit material.
As the head of the South Central ICAC, Becker has become a wise man for law enforcement offices across Missouri. He regularly fields phone calls from officers in need of help or advice concerning computer forensics or other technologically based questions. Becker’s reputation has even grown to the point that he has been invited to speak and give trainings at international conferences on dark web investigative techniques he pioneered. Becker will in fact be traveling to Australia for a conference later this year.
For all of his success, however, one thing that keeps Becker awake at night is the idea that for all his work, help will come too late for some victims.
“Parents need to be involved in what their kids are up to,” Becker says. “A kid can be on their phone getting into bad things online sitting in a car right next to their parents, and they’d have no idea.”
Becker warns that parents of preteens ages 9-12 years old should be especially on guard when their children go online.
“That is the age when children have the technical ability to use the Internet but are naïve enough to not understand when someone is trying to exploit them,” Becker says. “Keep track of how your kids are using Wifi devices. Especially be on the alert for websites like chatroulette or other random web-cam based forums.”
Becker began his career in IT before moving with his wife to Dent County in the early 2000s. After briefly working in real estate, Becker became curious about joining the sheriff’s department through a friend. At the age of 48, he graduated from the sheriff’s academy and took a full-time position as a deputy in 2004. In 2007, the sheriff’s department investigated the case of a man who was actively creating and downloading child pornography. Becker’s technical expertise allowed him to excel on the case, and he transitioned to operating the local ICAC chapter soon thereafter.
As a Special Investigator, Becker is focused primarily on the exploitation of children on the Internet, but has also supported cases ranging from online harassment to fraud. So far this year Becker has worked 60 separate cases. Since taking over the local ICAC office, Becker has investigated more than 500 cases.