At a digital-forensics conference in 2011, British police asked Tim Grant if he could help undercover agents pose as young girls online. Grant, the director of Aston University’s Center for Forensic Linguistics, had just given a talk on how to identify the author of online messages by parsing their language. An officer in a regional organized-crime unit came up to him, he says, and told him there was a case the police wanted help with.
According to Grant, the officer explained that adult agents would take on the roles to lure out people who use the internet to abuse children. These undercover agents would step in for young people who were already being pursued online by “finding out about a child’s school, the uniform they wear there, their likes and interests, all by reading the previous chat,” Grant says. “But [the officer] felt there was something missing: getting the language right.”
The officer hoped that Grant could teach the police how to talk like kids. “That was the start of it,” Grant says.
Seven years later, it’s a regular part of Grant’s job to help send police officers into dark corners of the internet. In his day job at Aston University, he analyzes the strategies criminals use to goad children into sharing explicit images of themselves or meeting in person, and publishes academic papers on his findings. But he’s on the U.K. National Crime Agency’s list of expert advisers, and around 10 times a year a police force will bring him onto a case. “It can be helping with infiltration strategies on the dark web, or assisting them by deanonymizing offenders,” Grant explains.