Kathryn Seigfried-Spellar, associate professor of computer and information technology at Purdue University’s Polytechnic Institute, has been selected as a Fulbright Scholar for her work in cybersecurity — specifically, for her upcoming research that will analyze the criminological differences and online grooming strategies of child sexual exploitation offenders in Spain, train Spanish law enforcement officers, and conduct community safety seminars.
An established expert on the who and why of cybercrime, particularly internet crimes against children, Seigfried-Spellar will work with the University Research Institute of Criminology and Criminal Science at the University of Valencia in Spain. Child sexual exploitation is a global concern, and is one of the most pressing criminal threats facing the European Union, according to Europol. Over the past two years, the global COVID-19 pandemic contributed to an increase in child sexual exploitation as public health concerns forced much of the world’s social, educational and professional lives to move indoors and online.
“Reports suggest close to ninety percent of 10-year-old children in Spain have internet access, and one in five Spanish youth have experienced online grooming,” said Seigfried-Spellar. “This Fulbright award provides the opportunity to use applied research to help identify these criminals and, most importantly, protect these children.”
Seigfried-Spellar’s Fulbright work will focus on online chats — a key format used by child sexual exploitation offenders to groom, or lure, their underage targets — and will take place during the 2022-2023 academic year.
Adapting Chat Analysis Triage Tool to identify child sex offenders
Together with Julia Rayz, associate professor of computer and information technology at Purdue Polytechnic, Seigfried-Spellar previously developed the Chat Analysis Triage Tool (CATT), a program that uses state-of-the-art natural language processing techniques to analyze online conversations between minors and child predators. CATT identifies which adults are most likely to try to meet their intended victims in person, thus giving law enforcement more opportunities to stop these offenders before a child is physically harmed. Seigfried-Spellar’s cross-cultural work as a Fulbright Scholar will make it possible to adapt CATT to identify these offenders in Spain and create a foundation for law enforcement training and community safety seminars.
“This collaboration will create a multi-cultural combination of expertise in forensic psychology, criminology and natural language processing, making it possible to better understand criminological differences and grooming strategies of child sex exploitation offenders in Spain,” explained Seigfried-Spellar.
By examining criminological variables including offender and victim characteristics, such as age and gender; chat platforms, such as Instagram; and specific offender tactics, such as self-disclosures intended to build trust with the intended victim, Seigfried-Spellar’s applied research will develop the data needed to help train CATT’s algorithms for Spanish offenders and will help to address a significant lack of literature on non-English-speaking child sex exploitation offenders.
In preparation for this research, Seigfried-Spellar already has worked with the University of Valencia to collect from Spanish law enforcement more than 176 criminal cases involving chats between minors and online offenders.
“It is important to note that, in all of the cases that we examine, we diligently protect the identities of these children,” said Seigfried-Spellar. “No names or other identifying information are available to our researchers.”
Upon completion of the project, Seigfried-Spellar expects to leverage her findings and, along with her collaborators, conduct law enforcement training on child sex exploitation offenders, provide parent-focused educational seminars on internet safety and security, and disseminate her findings to sex offender prevention and intervention programs — all tailored to fit the realities of child sexual exploitation in Spain.
“My hope is that this is only the beginning,” said Seigfried-Spellar. “As CATT and other technologies evolve, we also must expand our research through a wider, cross-cultural lens in order to make these technologies available and effective on a global scale.”