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Child Porn Detection by AI: The chase is on with technology on the internet


Photo by Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash

A family member holds a video camera as a little girl is giggling and laughing as she poses for the camera. Uploading the video to a website, her family expects other family members and friends will enjoy watching it, but that is a wrong assumption.


Software will quickly snatch the many clips her parents have uploaded. Included will be photos of her in her bathing suit, her pajamas, and in the tub with her toys. Especially prized will be any of her in some stage of undress.


The result will not be an innocent child at play but fodder for an ever-vigilant, rapacious group of pedophiles worldwide. Soon she will receive an appropriately suggestive name, and the files will be shared or sold to millions and stores where the child abusers know to look for them.


The files are incorporated into a never-ending caravan of images as it circulates to a broader and wider net of perverts. Her family may never discover it until after the damage is done. And the damage will go on and on and on. But AI, with its ability to quickly learn to discern objectionable material, is proving useful to combat the spread of this material on the internet.


How big is the problem?


A representative of Thorn, a non-profit group fighting child sexual abuse, Julie Cordua, outlined a few details at a TED talk.


This is a truly global problem, but if we just look at the US: in the US alone last year, more than 45 million images and videos of child sexual abuse material were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and that is nearly double the amount the year prior. And the details behind these numbers are hard to contemplate, with more than 60 percent of the images featuring children younger than 12, and most of them including extreme acts of sexual violence. Abusers are cheered on in chat rooms dedicated to the abuse of children, where they gain rank and notoriety with more abuse and more victims. In this market, the currency has become the content itself.”


The millions of images appear too numerous to catalog because of the effective strategies child porn predators employ to hide their materials.


UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund) has investigated this salacious activity. They have indicated that “Digital technology has made it easier than ever for sex offenders to contact potential child victims around the world, share images of their abuse, and encourage each other to commit further crimes. Ninety-two percent of all child sexual abuse URLs are hosted in five countries: the Netherlands, the United States, Canada, France, and the Russian Federation.”


The countries outlined in the UNICEF activities failed to include three other countries found to engage in substantial numbers of child pornography/abuse; Pakistan, the Philippines, and Germany.


The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, another non-profit, has indicated an increase in child pornography/abuse crimes. “Child pornography crimes have steadily increased throughout the country as well. The (group)…received more than 18 million CyberTipline reports of possible cases in 2018, compared with 10 million reports in 2017, said John Shehan, a vice president at the center.”


The specter of child pornography/abuse is not going away. To curtail and contain this activity, who and what is involved?

Photo by Kaur Kristjan on Unsplash

What is being done?


One obvious source of containment of this activity in the United States is the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) via teams. They outline their activities as, “These kinds of investigations — many of them undercover — are conducted in FBI field offices by CETFs (Child Exploitation Task Force), which combine the resources of the FBI with those of other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. Each of the FBI’s 56 field offices has worked investigations developed by the VCAC program, and many of our legal attaché offices have coordinated with appropriate foreign law enforcement partners on international investigations.”


Activities protecting children and removing objectionable material from the Internet have been begun by Microsoft Germany, Google, and several non-profit organizations.


Thorn.org has developed software which they make available to Internet entities to identify child pornographic materials. “Since 2016, Spotlight has helped law enforcement find kids faster. Our flagship product was developed based on the insights gained from our first survivor survey. Spotlight accelerates victim identification and helps law enforcement make the best use of the critical time they have to focus on finding more child sex trafficking victims.”


Microsoft Germany is working on developing Hey Hi — based solutions for analyzing child pornography. The company has indicated that the “aim of the project is to significantly speed up the preservation of evidence of the often extensive material and to relieve the civil servants of a large part of their psychologically stressful activity.” Microsoft has also developed PhotoDNA, a tool used by Facebook and Twitter.


The non-profit organization, Enough Is Enough, is working with Wi-Fi networks in local cafés that supply this service. Organizations that have been approached include Starbucks and McDonald’s. These companies will employ filters against pornography in their systems.


Google has also entered the efforts to fight this material and has provided a free service to organizations. Those interested may contact them to discuss how they might implement it.

Organizations wishing to provide themselves with protection against this material may contact NetClean. The company indicates that its product, Net Clean ProActive, “detects when child sexual abuse material is being handled in your IT-environment. Similar to an anti-virus software, but instead of detecting computer viruses, ProActive finds images and videos that law enforcement has classified as child sexual abuse material.”


US law change


In the United States, there is new legislation regarding this type of material. “The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) are the U.S. Senate and House bills that as the FOSTA-SESTA package became law on April 11, 2018. They clarify the country’s sex trafficking law to make it illegal to knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking, and amend the Section 230 safe harbors of the Communications Decency Act (which make online services immune from civil liability for the actions of their users) to exclude enforcement of federal or state sex trafficking laws from its immunity.”


A vigorous, on-going campaign has been launched to protect children from becoming victims of child sex abuse, child pornography, or sex trafficking. It is, however, dependent on the vigilance of all adults, corporations, law enforcement, and organizations to maintain their watch. In their efforts to protect children, AI has proven to be a valuable tool as it quickly learns to identify these materials.

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DR. PATRICIA A. FARRELL