Wednesday 12 December 2018

Emily's fight against online predators is making the world safer for children

Former undercover FBI agent Emily Vacher spearheads Facebook's child safety drive, writes Alan O'Keeffe

Emily Vacher. Photo: Alexis Lebedoff
Emily Vacher. Photo: Alexis Lebedoff

Alan O'Keeffe

Emily Vacher snared dozens of men who preyed on children on the internet.

The former FBI agent still feels a special satisfaction for arresting so many people seeking to sexually exploit children.

"There are no stereotypes. One of the first guys I ever arrested had a PhD in physics," she said.

She spent 10 years in the FBI's online undercover operations, pretending to be a 12-year-old girl, as she chatted on line with sex predators.

"To be totally honest, when I was in college, I saw the movie The Silence of the Lambs and it kind of planted a seed.

"I wanted to be Jodie Foster," she said, recalling the actress's role as a young FBI agent.

Jody Foster as FBI Agent Clarice Starling in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ — a role that impressed Emily Vacher
Jody Foster as FBI Agent Clarice Starling in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ — a role that impressed Emily Vacher

Now Facebook security's Director of Trust and Safety, she was in Dublin last Wednesday for the launch of an enhanced partnership between an Garda and Facebook that will ensure garda alerts about abducted children will be sent directly to the newsfeeds of all Facebook users in Ireland.

Ms Vacher told the Sunday Independent she hopes the decade of her life spent tracking and capturing online predators helped make the world "a little bit better".

She grew up in New York and worked as a lawyer before being hired by the FBI.

She was sent for training at the age of 29 to the FBI academy at Quantico, Virginia.

"At Quantico… my eyes were open wide. We learned how to conduct investigations, collect evidence, studied the law. But then we also learned to use firearms.

"We learned defensive tactics - how to safely make arrests," she said.

When she graduated in May 2001, she was assigned to a senior agent for two years of further training and supervision. Four months after graduating, the carnage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks convulsed the US, and all FBI agents were deployed on the huge investigation that followed.

In 2002, she was assigned to work with the Innocent Images FBI team based in Baltimore, Maryland, which is dedicated to targeting online predators.

"I wanted to work in crimes against children… I was lucky enough to get a spot on that squad and I worked that for the next 10 years," she said.

"When you think about working in crimes against children, it's really dark.

"The material that you see is often very sad, very scary. Child exploitation images.

"But I was also a member of the FBI's Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team. It was our job to go out and find kids who were the subject of 'amber alerts'… To bring a child home to their family, there's nothing like it."

In her online work, she examined indecent images of children, and in some cases the offender would leave himself or herself in the image.

"I would work to identify the offender in order to rescue the child," she said.

Many children were rescued in this way. Her team put many images of offenders on the America's Most Wanted TV programme and people would telephone to identify them.

"On my first case, the offender's mother picked up the phone and called the America's Most Wanted hotline.

"She reported that she saw a picture of her son on the programme. We ended up arresting him and he shared information about somebody else who was also abusing children.

"We were able to arrest another individual and protect a lot of kids. It was really amazing," she said.

The man turned in by his mother got a lengthy prison sentence.

"And the individual that he reported had three prior convictions for child exploitation. So he went to trial and received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. That was because of his history and the seriousness of the offences," she said.

"That lifts you up. You think about the kids. It's one of those moments where you know you've done your job.

"What's important to me, just in my life as a productive member of society, is the ability to make the world a little bit better place.

"I feel like the work that I did, arresting bad guys, was protecting kids that had not been abused and bringing justice to those who had. That was important to me," she said.

But there was not always a good outcome. She experienced some bad times. There had been tragic cases in which children had died.

"I think it's the times where you do have a success that it is such a high that it reminds you to keep going because you are going to protect other kids," she said.

She said there is no stereotypical online predator.

Neither education levels, socio-economic status, sexual orientation nor marital status have a definite bearing when trying to predict a predator.

"None of that matters. It's just those looking for the opportunity to offend and sometimes they will use the internet to facilitate that," she said.

She recalled the first predator she caught with whom she went through a court trial. She had posed as a 12-year-old girl and agreed to meet the man in a shopping mall. She arrested him like she did so many others in the years that followed.

"He had a sexual interest in children. The meeting was arranged. That's when we grabbed him. It was in a mall.

"By then, I knew everything. He was in his 40s. He was married with a child. A good job in the government. So you never know.

"When they show up, I usually say their name and then they would look confused for a second and then I would pull out my badge, my credentials, and say 'you're under arrest' and then the colour drains from their faces," she said.

When arrested, predators react in different ways.

"Some of them cry. Some of them said 'I wasn't going to do it'. I had one guy tell me that he only showed up so that he could warn the child of the danger of meeting strangers on the internet.

"And I said 'You can explain that to the jury'."

She said she arrested "dozens" in similar circumstances.

As the investigating agent, she always conducted interviews right after someone was arrested.

"Every situation is different so it's your job as the investigator to kind of size up who you're talking to and figure out what tactics to take. With some of them, you just want to listen. Some of them just want to talk.

"I had one guy who basically said 'thank you' for arresting him as he didn't know how to stop on his own," she said.

Others kept lying about their crimes.

She always met the predators' families and her concerns were the safety of children in those families. A lot of devastated spouses had no idea what their husbands were up to on the internet.

"Success was making the world safer. That's a really cool thing to get to do," she said.

After 11 years in the FBI, she was offered a job by Facebook which was "a perfect fit" as its role included the protection of children.

She volunteers in the US as a member of the board of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

She said Facebook is "a great tool" for finding abducted children. She travelled to 24 countries last year as part of the company's work with police forces around the world in the area of child rescue..

In Ireland, Child Rescue Ireland (CRI) alerts will now be distributed instantly to newsfeeds of all 2.8m Facebook users in Ireland. Gardai will work closely with Facebook's Global Security Operations Centre on the alerts. Facebook's Tim Fagan has been working with gardai for years.

Gardai will use the alert system only when they suspect a child has been abducted and there is an immediate serious risk to the child's health or welfare. The information will include a photograph of the child and the description of any vehicle used in the suspected abduction.

"Being able to use technology in this way, seeing where we, as a company, can do something that brings so much good is really rewarding," she said.

She said: "So when a child goes missing, we are able to share the information about that case when someone is standing in line at a grocery store or waiting for a taxi while they looking at their cellphone.

"If a child goes missing in their area, they have everything they need right there. And that's what brings kids home."

Sunday Independent