Police dog catches paedophiles by sniffing out their hidden hard drives

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order

Dog with suitcase, courtesy of ShutterstockWhen it comes to uncovering child pornographers, investigators sometimes just get lucky.

For example, there was the child sex abuse addict who turned himself in to cops a year ago after getting tricked into it by ransomware.

In January, it was a routine police visit that led to the bust of an international webcam child abuse ring.

Then again, investigators also dig out child porn rings from the slimiest parts of the dark web, like the 27,000-member child abuse ring buried on Tor that the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uncovered in March.

Now, investigators in the US state of Rhode Island have a new tool for finding child porn.

The tool is named Thoreau, and Thoreau is a golden Labrador retriever.

He sniffs out gadgets in exchange for food.

According to the Providence Journal, Rhode Island recently became the second state in the nation to employ a police dog that's trained to sniff out hard drives, thumb drives and other devices that could contain child pornography.

Of course, Thoreau can't sniff out specific content.

Rather, Thoreau, trained for 22 weeks at the Connecticut State Police Training Academy, can detect hidden electronics, whether it's a thumb drive encased in a tin hidden deep in a metal cabinet or a hard drive sealed inside a plastic bag in the upper shelf of a desk.

As the Providence Journal reports, child abuse image addicts often hide devices in ceiling tiles or even radios - places that police might miss but that a dog's sharp nose will track down.

Last month, Thoreau assisted in his first real-life, non-practice search when he pinpointed a thumb drive containing child pornography hidden four layers deep in a tin box inside a metal cabinet.

The discovery led to the police securing an arrest warrant, the Providence Journal reports.

Detective Adam Houston, Thoreau's handler, says that this is how the dog earns its keep: sniffing out memory cards in exchange for food.

This is how he eats every day.
If it has a memory card, he’ll sniff it out.

Detection dogs are trained to find a range of inanimate and animate things, including sniffing out cancer, human remains, invasive species such as the Quagga mussel, fire accelerants in arson investigations, drugs, explosives, firearms, endangered species such as the black-footed ferret or bumblebee nests, mold, termites, or mobile phones hidden as contraband in prisons.

In fact, dogs beat out the $19 billion worth of new and improved technology the US Pentagon purchased to detect bombs.

With the use of dogs to detect gadgets that might contain child porn, we have yet another blessed use of the analog - the miraculous physiology that goes into a dog's sense of smell - to combat the rising scourge of digitally enabled child abuse.

Let's hope that other states - and countries - see fit to adopt the living, breathing technology that bested the finest technology the Pentagon could come up with.

Image of golden retriever dog (not actually Thoreau) and suitcase courtesy of Shutterstock.

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26 Responses to Police dog catches paedophiles by sniffing out their hidden hard drives

  1. So, if I have a portable hard drive in my luggage I'm now a suspect because it "could" contain or "might" contain child pornography. Not to condone all of the paedo bastards, who seem to be coming out of the woodwork in the UK lately, but the existence of a thumbdrive or external usb hard drive hardly seems sufficient to warrant accusations of this sort.

    • Lindy · 414 days ago

      I thought meant if someone was a known or suspected paedophile, the dog could be used to sniff out stuff in their house.
      That's not to say they're not used in other places

  2. Michael Blau · 415 days ago

    What do the police do if there's no kiddie pron on the drive but they find, say, bomb making schematics or a terrorist manifesto? Do they walk away because they were looking for kiddie porn?

  3. Dave · 415 days ago

    Of course it also give the authorities a good excuse to go on a fishing expedition through perfectly legit devices containing legal, but private information.

    • They will need a warrant to search.

      • Stoat · 7 days ago

        They may need a warrant, but it's trivial to get one from a judge. They are seldom if ever refused even when the pretexts given are obviously flimsy.

  4. Rosie · 415 days ago

    What if the criminals choose to hide the pen drive inside a juicy stake or a block of ice? Also I hope Thoreau is getting plenty of exercise or else he would soon be too plump to sniff it all out :)

  5. Buzz · 415 days ago

    Which begs the question: "Are we going to stop paying ridiculous sums for abysmal results and use what has been proven to be much more effective?"

    If not, why not? The corrupt way that we do business with bribes and kickbacks needs to be stopped and the real solutions need to be implemented, regardless of political pressure not to.

    Added benefits are that we can save dogs lives who are euthanized or in pounds or shelters awaiting similar fates. WIN WIN! We do not have t o pay foreign countries for their trained service dogs when we can do it ourselves and provide quality results and employment for our citizens.

    And we gain billions of dollars to reduce our horrible debt...nuff said

    • Kaboom · 415 days ago

      Unfortunately not all dogs can be "sniffer" dogs. It takes a certain type of personality and level of intelligence to be able to make it through the training program.

  6. Mang · 415 days ago

    They could help certain Governments keep track of important data left in the back of taxis too...

    This is fantastic news.

  7. Anonymous · 415 days ago

    Wait, the dog was in the house with the handler before a warrant was issued?

    • Anonymous · 415 days ago

      The discovery led to the police securing an arrest warrant, not a search warrant.

    • Lisa Vaas · 415 days ago

      Sounded to me like they had a search warrant, and discovering the media led to an arrest warrant.

      • Anonymous · 415 days ago

        Ah, that makes a lot more sense. I had equated "warrant" with "search warrant". I don't know why the word "arrest" didn't stick out at me more on first read. Thanks, Lisa!

        • Lisa Vaas · 415 days ago

          No worries! I had the exact same reaction as you did! I had to reread the Providence Journal article a few times before I figured it out.

  8. Carlos · 415 days ago

    Man i have drives and memory cards and device cards old laptos stashed all over my house (none with child porn). This dog would have nightmares at my place.

    • Kaboom · 415 days ago

      I don't think the dog would have nightmares about memory sticks and all the delicious treats (s)he was fed for finding them but I think you might have nightmares about all of the dog poop you'll have to clean up after the dog eats so many treats!

      Lets face it, if you were the handler, wouldn't you wait around in the yard of the "bad guy" until the dog relieved him/herself so you didn't have to clean it up from your yard?

    • Steve · 415 days ago

      But he would eat well! ;-)

    • Lisa Vaas · 415 days ago

      No, that dog would be in heaven if he came to your place, his belly stuffed. Remember, he works for food!

    • Stoat · 7 days ago

      One might suspect that the next tactic might be to stash thousands of memory cards around the house, some loaded up with logic bombs.

  9. Paul Hysen · 415 days ago

    We certainly don't need dogs to sniff out bulldust, as it's all-pervasive. Let's hope pedophiles are by nature stupid enough to believe this story; it may serve as a deterrent.

  10. What would prevent someone from pulverizing old electronics, well, maybe not quite pulverizing, but turning them into enough small pieces that would be placed everywhere? The dog would give positive hits on everything. I can't help wonder if, in some cases like these, the investigating agency already has the information it needs, but needs some kind of "rationale" to explain it in such a manner that its actual source would not be jeopardized. It doesn't sound reasonable that all the different possible storage devices would have some kind of "same smell-ness" to them that would permit the animals to differentiate them equally well from the background. There are different plastics used, different metals, different kinds of circuitry: I don't buy the whole thing.

    • David Pottage · 414 days ago

      No need to pulverise old electronics, just hide in plain sight.

      My understanding is that this dog sniffs out electronics, so if the suspect hides a memory stick filled with incriminating material under their floorboards or in you fridge then the dog will find it, but what if it was hidden inside the case of some innocent, and uninteresting bit of tech such as an old CRT TV?

      The dog will alert the handler to the TV, the handler will ignore it and move on as normal TVs don't store data, so unless the Police crime lab intend to take away and dismantle EVERY bit of electronics in a home (some of which a bulky, or dangerous to take apart), they can't be sure that they have not missed some hidden storage devices.

      For this reason, I can't see an electronics sniffing dog to be that useful in many cases. If a sniffer dog sniffs even a small amount of drugs or explosives, then that is interesting to the police, but if this dog sniffs quite a large amount of electronics, then in most cases it is innocent, and of no interest to the police or anyone else.

  11. Barney · 414 days ago

    First--there's no such thing as a "golden" lab. It's yellow lab or golden retriever. Second, if you're writing about a yellow lab, don't put a picture of a golden retriever in the article.

  12. Anonymous · 357 days ago

    Why aren't we using dogs at airports? It would be less invasive and keep things safe. Or is airport security really just about control and money?

    • Stoat · 7 days ago

      "Why aren't we using dogs at airports?"

      Dogs are routinely used at airports - usually Beagles as they're non-threatening and have very good noses.

      On the other hand would you want the USA's TSA equipped with dogs?

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.