MISSION VIEJO, Calif. – Determined to curb the escalating number of children falling prey to sexual predators online, representatives from federal and local law enforcement, along with a leading children's advocacy organization, announced Tuesday the launch of Project iGuardian, a first-of-its-kind national cyber safety campaign spearheaded by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in partnership with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
Project iGuardian is viewed as a vital next step in HSI's ongoing effort to combat online child sexual predation. Last year alone, HSI special agents logged nearly a million hours working child sexual exploitation cases, opening more than 4,000 investigations. Just last week, ICE announced a probe targeting a child exploitation scheme operating on the Darknet's Onion Router that identified more than 250 minors, in the U.S. and around the globe, who had been sexually exploited. As part of the scheme, the14 defendants allegedly duped and enticed the juvenile victims into producing sexually explicit material of themselves.
"The online sexual exploitation of children has reached epidemic proportions," said ICE Deputy Director Daniel Ragsdale. "Increasingly these incidents involve young people who are self-producing explicit images and sending them over the Internet. We can't arrest our way out of this problem. Raising awareness about the risks that lurk in cyberspace is key to helping keep kids safe."
As part of Project iGuardian, HSI special agents together with their law enforcement partners, will visit schools and youth groups across the country to provide children and parents with hands-on tips on how to avoid falling victim to online sexual predators. Using super hero-style characters and trading cards developed expressly for the initiative, the law enforcement personnel will remind young computer users to "think before you click." The presentations are age-appropriate, adapted for audiences ranging from grade school students to youths in their early teens
In companion briefings tailored for adults, Project iGuardian presenters will discuss resources parents can use to protect their children from cyber predators and monitor kids' online activity. Much of the material included in the presentations was originally developed by NCMEC, which provides Internet safety and prevention resources for families and professionals who work with children, through its NetSmartz Workshop.
"By educating families and children about the risks, we can arm them with information and strategies that empower them to make safer decisions online," said John Ryan, NCMEC president and CEO. "We applaud HSI for this natural next step in their work to protect children by delivering this information to communities nationwide."
HSI will be working closely with its partner law enforcement agencies from the 61 Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Forces nationwide to coordinate and conduct the Project iGuardian presentations. The initiative builds on the outreach already being conducted by ICAC personnel in local jurisdictions, giving the effort a national scope. According to the participating agencies, cyber safety education not only aids in prevention, it also frequently generates valuable case leads.
"Educating families as to the dangers that exist online continues to be of paramount importance," said Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens. "The Project iGuardian presentations exemplify how the collaborative efforts of law enforcement can positively impact the future of online safety and prevention of sexual predation of our children."
HSI and the Orange County Sheriff's Department have already conducted more than a dozen Project iGuardian presentations for schools and youth groups in Orange County in the last several months, many on campuses within the Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD). Tuesday's announcement was held at CUSD's Newhart Middle School in Mission Viejo, which hosted a Project iGuardian presentation for students and parents in February.
"Predators are assaulting our children utilizing the same technologies that fuel innovation and advancement," said Anna Bryson, a member of the Capistrano Unified School District Board of Trustees. "We can't remove the technology, and we do not want to prevent young people from exploring these tools. That is why I, and my colleagues on the Board of Trustees, have long advocated for providing our children with the ability to protect themselves with the use of tools like Project iGuardian."
Organizations and schools interested in requesting a Project iGuardian presentation can do so using a link on ICE's website. At that link, users will also find general cyber safety tips for kids, parents and educators. Those seeking further guidance can use the link on ICE's website to access NCMEC's NetSmartz Workshop, which features more detailed information on numerous topics related to online safety.