A New Hope: How Technology, Funding and Cooperation Can Help in the CSAM Fight 

forensic fix austin berrier

Child protection is one of the most important issues of our time, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Every day, children around the world are put at risk. Despite the critical importance of this work, those who enter the field of child protection often face daunting challenges and heart-wrenching cases that can take a toll on their mental and emotional well-being. 

In this interview, Adam Firman spoke with Austin Berrier, Special Agent with the US Homeland Security Investigations, who has dedicated his career to protecting the innocent, and for more than a decade, has focused primarily on child sexual abuse and exploitation investigations. 

In his extensive and incredibly impressive career, Special Agent Berrier has conducted both traditional and undercover investigations across a broad spectrum of platforms – everything from peer-to-peer, social media, file sharing, live streaming to end-to-end encryption platforms. He has consistently been at the forefront of using technology to combat child exploitation, and yet he recognizes how much more can – and should – still be done in that regard. 

Not only is Austin Berrier a talented federal agent, but he’s unmatched in his Lego-bricks building skill and Star Wars knowledge. While he may not use lightsabers or Millennium Falcon in his work combatting crimes, his investigative efforts have led – among many other professional accomplishments – to the arrest and indictment of over 250 child predators globally and the identification of 89 child victims as part of Project Mercury, earning him the 2018 Assistant Attorney General’s Distinguished Service Award. And when he’s not busy fighting the dark side of the internet, you might just find him constructing intricate Lego bricks creations.  

Join in for an incredible episode in which we explore Special Agent Berrier’s insights on how technology can change the course of an investigation, why there needs to be a shift in the way police fight child abuse, and how to focus on mental health and resilience in a job as emotionally demanding as law enforcement. 

Key Takeaways: 

  • Austin Berrier’s career path: From throwing snowballs at police cars to working for Homeland Security investigations 
  • Software that law enforcement use to combat child exploitation 
  • The struggles to keep up with internet growth in combating online crime 
  • Shift from intervention to prevention in fighting child abuse 
  • Technology is underutilized in identifying victims of crime 
  • The Role of automation and training for CSAM investigations 
  • Technology’s crucial role in stopping child victimization 
  • Addressing mental health for law enforcement officers  
  • The need for healthy coping mechanisms 
  • Cooperation among agents fighting online crime needs to transcend borders 
  • Funding: the main challenge for effectively combatting child exploitation 
  • Forensic tools and tech play a key role in tackling rising child exploitation cases 


Connect with MSAB on LinkedIn and Twitter    

Connect with Austin Berrier on LinkedIn  

Listen to the Podcast at: 

Austin Berrier’s Career Path: From Small Town Antics to Homeland Security Investigations 

Austin recounted his unexpected journey from a mischievous small-town kid to serving in a White House support unit and then later as Special Agent with Homeland Security Investigations. 

02:40 It was pretty much an accident. When I was a young kid growing up in a small town in rural Virginia, I was that kid who was always throwing snowballs at the police chief as he drove through the neighborhood or getting into trouble. Small town antics. Fast forward to university when originally, I had wanted to be a lawyer. Don’t ask me why, right? But I eventually joined the United States Marine Corps, where in their infinite wisdom, they decided to make me a military police officer. Now after attending the Department of Defense Military Police Academy, I didn’t do regular military police work. I was actually assigned to a White House support unit, Marine One, during the President Clinton administration where our job was to provide physical security for certain White House assets and Transportation assets and work with the Secret Service. And that was where I was first probably exposed to US federal law enforcement and law enforcement in general.   

Career shifts: A Federal Agent’s Transition from Guns and Narcotics to Computers 

After a conversation with his dad, Austin decided to explore the prospect of shifting his focus to white-collar crimes, which led him to the child exploitation and cyber-crimes unit, where he has been working for 13 years. 

05:52 Now, about getting into the computer crime, cybercrimes world. When I was a young federal agent, it was all about narcotics and guns and drugs and all the running around with your hair on fire and the blue lights flashing. 

 I remember I was having a conversation with my dad; I would have been in my late 30s, which now feels like so long ago. And my dad was telling me: When are you going to come out of the rain?. He said: The criminals aren’t getting any younger, but you’re definitely getting older. He said, you can’t keep doing this. I think he just told me something along the lines of You’re gonna break a hip one of these days. And so, I was looking around our office to see what type of white-collar crimes were available. Financial crimes didn’t really strike me as anything interesting. Looked kind of boring and math wasn’t my favorite subject anyways in school. And then we had an opening in our child exploitation and cyber-crimes unit. And I said, Well, I’ll give this a try. And that was 13 years ago. Here we are today. 

How Child Rescue Coalition’s Software is Helping Law Enforcement Combat Child Exploitation 

Austin is a big supporter and is involved with  the Child Rescue Coalition (CRC) and was recently recognized by the organization for his dedication and work. Child Rescue Coalition (CRC) is an NGO that develops software to aid law enforcement in identifying offenders. Their software is widely used by agencies worldwide and has been instrumental in helping investigators solve cases. The organization actively seeks input from investigators and is always looking for new ways to improve their technology to combat child exploitation – and this type of attitude is one of their most valuable assets. 

07:09 CRC, Child Rescue Coalition, one of the great things about them is they’ve developed software that individuals in the business are aware of that we use investigatively, right?  Different NGOs have different missions. Some are educational, some are building awareness, some, like CRC, build tech tools that law enforcement uses. And our agency has been using their software for quite some time, along with agencies from around the world. And that’s fantastic software that helps identify offenders. What I like about CRC is they’re always coming out to the field or to the investigators and saying, Hey, what’s the next crazy thing? Where’s the next place you would like to see a technical solution? Where’s another space that we could help you? So, they’re really good at doing that too. They’re not sitting back on their laurels and accolades. They’re always looking for a new space or a new way to help. 

Internet Growth Outpaces Law Enforcement’s Ability to Combat Online Crime

With the internet’s rapid expansion,  new spaces for offenders emerge every day. Law enforcement and government agencies lack the resources to keep up with this growth, leaving non-governmental organizations to fill the gaps. While these NGOs are doing important work, governments also need to step up to provide more funding for combating online crimes. 

08:56 The Internet is growing. Exponentially isn’t even accurate. It’s if you could have exponentially squared, right? The Internet is growing. Every day there’s 10 new spaces where offenders are and law enforcement and government cannot keep up. We don’t have the time, the money, or the expertise to build these tools. So, it’s kind of up to these NGOs to fill those gaps, which is unfortunate. I’m glad they’re doing it. I just wish that, you know, the government funded this crime type or society funded this crime type, like they do some of the other ones.   

From Intervention to Prevention: Why Should There Be a Shift in the Way Police Fight Child Abuse 

It may be about time to shift the focus from just finding and rescuing victims to preventing abuse altogether. With parents and society taking a more proactive approach to education and technology, we can work towards creating a safer online environment for all. 

11:45 I’ve seen some progression in my time in this crime type. We used to be focused on getting the bad guys, which is, of course, important. And then we’ve switched to being victim-centric, right? Where it’s find that child. And I hate the term rescue a child. I think the child rescues themselves emotionally. We are just intervening. But it’s most other crime types, at least in the US, right? We’d rather prevent it. Police don’t sit in the station waiting for the crime to happen and then respond. They’re out actively patrolling, trying to prevent crime. Wouldn’t it be great if we could prevent abuse through either education or technology, some kind of deterrence, as opposed to allowing the child to be abused in the first place. And I think that starts at home, right? Parents have to be engaged with their kids. Children have to be appropriately, but realistically educated about the dangers online. If mom and dad are sitting at the end of the sofa playing fantasy football or Candy Crush ignoring their children. Well, what are the kids going to do? They’re going to model behavior and they’re going to get online looking for validation. 

Technology can change the course of an investigation and help identify victims of crime faster and more efficiently. Then why is it so underutilized? 

Technology can serve as a force multiplier to address the rising cases of child exploitation.

14:03 You could have a million police just working this crime type and it wouldn’t be enough. So, I think, this is a great place where technology can be a force multiplier. I know, for example, facial recognition is a hot topic. There are fans of it and there’s those who don’t like it. They’re afraid of its misuse, which I understand. But I think in victim identification, that is a fantastic tool, right? We have all these images of children – and I’m not a ones and zeros guy – but you tell me there isn’t a way that when we have bulk data that we cannot carve out or extract a face of a victim or an offender, but preferably a victim, and then run that through a tool. I think the most commonly talked about one in law enforcement is ClearView, right? Then run that through a tool like Clearview. And now you’ve got a possible match to some little kids Instagram or Facebook or their Snapchat or whatever, TikTok, right? And now at least you have a starting place, and you can hopefully go from there.  

Automating process can make a real difference in CSAM investigations. So does training. 

Technology has the potential to help identify victims of child abuse and stop the abuse sooner, but people are afraid of it. On another note, it doesn’t help either when law enforcement officers without proper training

15:10 A lot of those kids never come forward; A lot of times, you know, they’re asked to bring in their friends, you know, or it might be 10, 15 victims down the road before some child has the strength to disclose. But if we could automate that process… And now what you have is have cops knock on a door and say, hey, we think your kid’s been a victim, but at least it stops it. And I think that would be a fantastic use of technology, but people are afraid of technology. 

And cops, sometimes we shoot ourselves in the foot. If we use the technology incorrectly without proper training, then we set a bad precedent, right? We have to know what we’re doing. 

Using Technology to Stop Victimization Should be a Priority for Law Enforcement 

The tech industry often has a larger platform and better resources to influence public perception. At the same time, law enforcement needs to get better at communicating their message: We don’t care about your private life. What we care about is not letting people get victimized if there’s something we can do about it.   

16:54 I think law enforcement is definitely losing the messaging battle, right? We’re not good at that as an industry because up until recently, that wasn’t something we had to do, right? Social media and the 24-hour news cycle has kind of thrust law enforcement into the public perception constantly. So we have to get better at that.  

But the tech industry, the multi-billion-dollar corporations, some of them are richer than countries, right? They have an army of spin doctors to go out there and make us look big and bad. There’s this perception that the average cop, me or somebody else, wants to read everybody’s emails and all their deep dark secrets. No, I frankly don’t care. Whatever you’re doing in your bedroom, as long as you’re not hurting somebody, hey, good for you, right? Be adventurous. I don’t care, you know. If you’ve got 10 girlfriends and a wife, hey, that’s for you to figure out. 

 But if there’s a child or if there’s somebody being victimized or an adult being victimized, wouldn’t we want to stop that? If we’re driving down the road and we see somebody being brutally attacked, we don’t go, oh, you know, I have a tool that would stop that, but I’m choosing not to deploy it. Right. So I think we’ve got to change the way that society views the way law enforcement wants to use this. And like you said, we know that technology exists.  

The undercover work of combatting online child exploitation requires constant vigilance 

The work required to combat child exploitation online, including identifying offenders, responding to emergencies, and documenting investigations is pretty much around the clock. 

21:25 For me, it’s kind of a 24-7 kind of thing, right? Because people are on the internet 24-7. If I’m only on the internet two hours a day, well, that would not be very effective. It’s constant online work… you know, dealing with the offenders and trying to identify them, of course. And then you throw in emergencies. Somebody will identify a child at risk. Something that’s brand new, right now, is happening. That’s kind of how Project Mercury kicked off. And it’s really cool to watch these international, unofficial coalitions get together and solve this problem and find this kid. But I do that through the day. And then, unfortunately policing now is a lot of writing. So, there’s a whole lot of writing and a lot of report writing and documenting what you do. And then, of course, for example, this past week I’ve been in trials, so there’s a lot of testimony and stuff like that. But for me, the undercover portion of it is pretty constant, right? It’s seven days a week. I’ve identified bad guys on Christmas Eve, on Easter, and so on. 

Mental health and resiliency of officers working on online child protection is crucial 

Due to the incredibly sensitive nature of their work, many in law enforcement working with CSAM are at risk of burnout. Taking care of their mental health and well-being is actually what will ensure they remain great professionals for a long time. 

23:16 Because something that’s become important to me in the last few years is the mental health and resiliency of our people doing this work. We see a lot of burnout and you have to figure out a way, you do have to sometimes walk away and turn it off. Your families, your friends deserve you as, deserve the officer’s time as well, the agent’s time. And broken cops or salty cops really aren’t of use to anybody, right? If you find yourself getting in that space, you need to take a break so you can continue to be effective. 

Law enforcement officers need healthy coping mechanisms 

The importance of having healthy coping mechanisms to deal with the emotional toll of investigating crimes related to child exploitation cannot be overstated. For some, it’s reading fantasy novels or listening to a podcast. For Austin it’s building Lego brick sets. 

24:51 I try to tell myself that I recognize that it affects me, but I’ve tried to come up with a healthy coping mechanism because if I ever get to the point where I’m so bent to the content, then it’s time to move on, right? Because good cops still have their humanity, right? You still need that. So, you have to figure out what that coping mechanism is, right? Do you have that little walled off space in your brain where you can put this stuff? And then you have the healthy outlets. Anybody who’s friends with me and knows that I’m like a huge Star Wars and Lego geek. So, if my family ever sees me sitting down and building 5,000 pieces of Lego over the weekend, they know: Austin had a particularly cruddy week and this is his coping mechanism, right? That’s how I get rid of it.  

And that’s one of the issues that I have with the law enforcement management community in general, I’m not talking about my boss, I have fantastic chain of command. But as an industry, so much of law enforcement historically has been, you know, drugs and guns and crimes of violence or at the federal level, it’s, you know, it’s types of crime. And I don’t think people realize that this crime type affects its investigators. 

The Catch 22 of CSAM Investigations 

Getting police leadership and on-the-ground officers on the same page is easier said than done. 

27:44 So many people in this that work this crime type are true believers and crusaders. They stay in it for the long haul. And like in my agency, very few of them actually promote, right? They want to stay where they are. So, I think we have a lot of people in police leadership globally who just have never worked this prime time. They don’t have a frame of reference. But then when you try to explain it to them, everybody’s like: I could never work that. I don’t want to see that. That stuff is horrible. So, it’s kind of a catch-22 there, right? We need to educate our leadership on the importance of it, but it’s such horrible content that nobody wants to see it or even learn about it. 

Online crime knows no borders. Neither should cooperation among agents fighting it. 

Cooperation and communication among law enforcement agencies to combat online child exploitation is key to identifying and protecting victims quickly.  

29:08 The internet is a borderless entity, right? I mean, you’re crossing international lines or state lines or provincial lines constantly. Now, for the bad guys, those lines on a map mean nothing. But they do to us in law enforcement. That’s where your bailiwick, that’s where your jurisdiction ends. 

But that doesn’t mean I can’t pick up the phone or send an email or a text or a signaled chat to a friend cop or somewhere else. There’s official policies on how to communicate with agencies and that’s very bureaucratic in nature and takes weeks or months. But what we’re starting to see is in this community is that there’s a need for instantaneous communication amongst coppers around the world, right? ‘Hey, I’ve found this in your neck of the woods. What do you think?’  

And we’re being allowed more and more to have those communications because the goal is to identify that victim, right? Once you have that information shared, then you can send all the reports formally through channels, but you got to let that other cop know: Hey, there’s a baddie in your area, you should look into this. And that can’t take weeks when there’s kids at risk. 

Why Funding Matters More Than Lip Service 

Society and government must prioritize child crime prevention through funding. 

30:40 100% funding – and that covers a wide range of things, especially here in the US. We have the ICAC model, right? The Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which here in the US is generally comprised of local municipal agencies with a federal partner. And those local agencies generally are mandated to work on crimes in their jurisdiction. And that makes sense, right? You’re a city or a county or a state agency. And then the federal partners help with the bigger stuff. But they still have tons and tons of crime, or tons and tons of cases. But then even at the federal level, where we’re expected to work on these big, large scale, complex investigations. Some of our agencies, and even in the big cities, only have one or two people working as crime type, right? Now, in my office in Phoenix, we’re lucky. We have a 10-person squad. And to me, that shows my bosses take this seriously. But that funding goes not to just bodies, because we can’t throw enough bodies at it. We can’t. We would have to have, like I said, a million cops working this. It goes to technology. Forensic tools that you know, the tools that we use after-the-facts cost money and I understand. Companies have to keep the lights on and make salaries.  

 But we’re not spending money on making the job easier. We need to be developing technology on that front end – that either helps with detection or helps with prevention. In a perfect world, we would fund this to the point where on the front end, it decreases the volume of work for me. So, it’s got to be funded more. And I’m a firm believer that society and governments show what’s important to them by throwing resources at a problem. We can talk about it, but until you put money and bodies on a problem, it’s really important to you. And I think that’s what we’re seeing. We’re seeing a lot of lip service, and we need to see governments, industry partners, and society putting their money where their mouth is

Technology is key to tackling rising child exploitation cases 

There’s an urgent need for smarter solutions, and the answer lies in technology.  

34:14 These are children. These are people’s, our most precious commodity, right? And we’re not even doing the bare minimum. We’re not even keeping our head above water. When some of these big pushes come out, I have guys calling me saying: How am I supposed to do 500 NICMIC referrals in one year? And the answer is: one at a time. That’s all you can do. And then you have all the other types of cases that are working. We’re not keeping our head above water. We are 100% drowning in this. There’s got to be a smarter way. And I think technology holds the key. 

The Why of It All 

This is Austin’s advice for people who are considering a career in this industry. 

35:09 Definitely give this work a try. Obviously, it’s not for everybody, but if you have a squad or a team in your agency that’s looking to do child protection, ask if you can do a temporary assignment with them, because you need to see the reality of it and know if it’s something that you can mentally and emotionally handle. But I think this is the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my law enforcement career. Other crimes are important, don’t get me wrong. When I was a municipal police officer working domestic violence or, you know, taking drunk drivers off the road or street level narcotics – that’s quality of life too. But with this, I think the key is, is that the victims themselves did not choose to be there. I understand addiction and how there’s levels of choice and stuff, or codependency and domestic violence relationships. But these are little, little human beings who have no ability to defend themselves, nobody to speak up for them because oftentimes their abusers are the people that are supposed to be protecting them. So it’s the most rewarding thing – if you save one kid, if you identify one kid and get them out of that situation, it’s like the Schindler’s List: Save one man, save them all. There’s no words that can explain that feeling you get when you know that kid is safe. If you believe in that kind of thing, it’s the instant ticket to heaven. You’re going to change someone’s life for the better, they’re probably not even going to know who you are, and that’s okay. But you’re giving some little kid a second lease on life.  

Thank you for joining us on the fourth episode of Forensic Fix.   

Contact us

If you would like to request a quote or learn more about our products, contact sales

If you have a general question, let us know here and we will reach out to you as soon as possible.

"*" indicates required fields