February 9, 2024

Staying Fit to Fight: Insights from Matt Richardson

By Tom Gorendal

While most of the dark web content we see at Bluestone Analytics ranges from perfectly legal—and often objectionable—chatter to the very much illegal but not visceral fraud, drug trafficking, and cybercrime, some of our DarkBlue and DarkPursuit users swim in murky waters in the fight against child sexual abuse material (CSAM) and violent extremism.

“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil”

Daily, investigators dedicated to these missions can encounter language and images that can harm their minds. When you gaze into the abyss for too long, that exposure can become a real problem. It can impact your mental health, job performance, and career longevity.

In this series, we're sharing insights from veterans in these fields to explore how you can minimize your exposure to this toxic content and maximize your longevity in the fight against some of the worst bad actors on the open and dark web.

We've turned to Matt Richardson, Director of Intelligence at the Anti-Human Trafficking Intelligence Initiative (ATII), who specializes in combatting child sexual abuse material (CSAM) to gain some insights on how he keeps himself and his team fit to fight over the long term.

Establish your support system

Matt spoke passionately about establishing a robust support system for yourself while you're still in a good place. Much like an oxygen mask in an airplane, Matt emphasized the importance of having resources in place before you find yourself in a state of crisis. He suggests getting a licensed therapist with a good reputation and training as a good starting point.

Matt:  “If you don't think you need it, that's fantastic. At least have it ready in your hip pocket. What I recommend is to start the sessions before you even start doing the work because there may be things there that you don't remember later.”

While therapists can identify your symptoms, triggers, and coping strategies, peer support is equally essential.

Matt: “My therapist helps me with the clinical side, but there are things that maybe would make me feel good to talk about and it helps you let it go. I don't personally expose my therapist to that... but I know I can talk to people in the field and I'm not exposing them to anything or hurting them."

Matt: "With good peers and the therapist together, you're covering all that stuff 100%.“

Support your team

Matt also stresses the importance of being there for your team during their investigations, whether they're just starting or have been in the field for years.


To enhance team longevity, Matt emphasizes a gradual onboarding process for aspiring analysts, carefully exposing them to the workflow and overseeing early investigations.

Matt: "For the analysts that want to get into this—the aspiring analysts—it's a slow process, little by little. Never start in the deep end of the pool."

Matt checks in with analysts at each stage of training as he eases them into the work, whether it's technology and operational security training or providing awareness about disturbing scenarios they may encounter.

Matt: "I'm watching to see how they're reacting throughout the whole thing. I want to make sure, before it gets into uncharted waters or unknowns, that if they're exposed, then it’s with myself or myself and a colleague or two. That’s way better than running into it alone at two in the morning."

When his trainee realizes that investigations aren't right for them, he offers alternatives whenever he can.

Matt: “Sometimes the trainee will opt out and realize, ‘You know what? I don't want to do this, but I want to stay in the space,' so we can look at human trafficking investigations that are more financial or business or corporate oriented and aren’t quite as visceral. We can look at other options like OSINT for finding victims: who they are and where they are. There are a lot of ways to be involved.”


When you suspect a team member might be struggling, Matt suggests trusting your instincts.

Matt: "Often, I don't really know why I took someone aside, I just know it seemed like the right thing to do and I'm right on it quite a bit. Don't think that they'll come and tell you if something's wrong, because people don't want to ask for help... in this world, you have to be the one to ask the question because often no one's gonna say anything."

He also mentioned promoting an environment where teammates can freely share their personal experiences, mainly by creating camaraderie and recognizing hard work.

Matt: "If you foster an environment where the people you're working with start to make friendships on their own, they're gonna look to the left and right and care about the people next to them. When they're running out of energy, they'll continue to fight for each other. You'll have a healthy, strong, resilient, and supportive unit."

Take self-care seriously

Matt stressed that recognizing your body's signals and taking it slow is just as important. When possible, he also suggests taking advantage of technology to limit your exposure.


Similarly, when you're struggling, you need to take care of yourself.

Matt: “You gotta look after yourself because you can't help if you're not safe and healthy. If you're exhibiting symptoms [that you don't understand]... it's rooted in something, and in my case, it was the work."

It took time, experience, and professional guidance for Matt to get better at recognizing when the work was pushing him past his limits.

Matt: "I'm getting better at recognizing the symptoms even when they’re small. Maybe it’s a little bit of a tremor in my hand, and this is just me, but my hair will feel funny or I'll feel a pressure in the top of my head. It's not a headache, but I can feel a pressure. My breathing rate will speed up. My heart rate might speed up. I might get chills or sweats so that I start to think, ‘I’m getting sick, right?’ like I might be getting the flu. All of them at once, or one or two together, those are the symptoms that manifest to tell me something is wrong. Those things are telling me ok, wait, something's going on, slow it down. Pause yourself, dude."

He suggests taking a break and spending time on self-care to relieve pressure and restore health so you can perform at your best.

Matt: "Some people do Jiujitsu, ride dirt bikes, or play paintball. I like doing things that slow the world down for me. We have a family of bunnies in the backyard. Me and my sons built them a couple of dens in the winter. We put food out for them and bird feeders. I really enjoy that stuff. We started gardening in the summer after my event in May in the United States. Gardening was awesome. Caring for the plants, feeding them, watering them, pruning them. For me, those really slow and chill things."


Matt emphasizes the importance of limiting your exposure as much as possible.

Matt: "If you don't need the audio, never listen to it. For me, the audio is the worst. So if I don't need to hear their voices for an investigative purpose, I don't have the sound on."

He also mentioned taking advantage of tools whenever possible.

Matt: "If you're able to blur the images or flip it to black and white, that really does help."

One of the tools that he suggests is DarkPursuit, which can help investigators mitigate exposure to disturbing visuals during OSINT investigations. He also suggests using a tool like DarkBlue to do threat hunting without exposing yourself to the live environment or images.

Arm yourself for the battle ahead

Matt's approach to staying fit for the fight involves a holistic strategy encompassing a support system, supervisory intervention, and learning to lighten your load. By prioritizing mental health, investigators can stay in the fight against online crimes for the long term without sacrificing their well-being.

About Matt Richardson

Matt Richardson is a seasoned expert in OSINT and dark web intelligence, bringing extensive experience to the forefront of complex investigations targeting sex trafficking and CSAM offenders. By day, he's a dedicated family man and professor, while serving as the Director of Intelligence and Investigations at the Anti-Human Trafficking Intelligence Initiative (ATTI). Matt drives CSAM investigations, diving into the darkest corners of the web to combat some of the worst offenders on the dark and open web. Outside of his role at ATII, he also serves as a liaison with law enforcement, trains new investigators, and serves as a primary source of peer support with the investigative community. Matt is passionate in his role with the ATII, where he collaborates with a team of experts to use his skills and help make children, families, and communities safer. You can learn more about Matt here.