Working together against sexual abuse online: how technology can help

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As Intel joins WePROTECT Global Alliance, Data Scientist Ed Dixon reflects on the need for industry, civil society and governments to work together to tackle this urgent and borderless crime.

Child sexual abuse online is a difficult problem in many ways.  It can be hard to talk about. The very topic can make us deeply uncomfortable.  The offences happen in private, with victims who can’t speak out for themselves. The result is that it is a largely hidden tragedy, competing for attention with more visible crimes.  

The nature of the internet also makes online child sexual abuse a challenging crime to investigate. With a “traditional” child abuse case, the investigating officer can begin with a victim, a crime scene, physical evidence, and perhaps even a suspect. But investigation of an online crime that begins with digital evidence first must answer such basic questions such as, ‘in which country did the crime occur?’ 

In a “traditional” case, officers arrive on the scene after the fact. However, case workers in the domain of online child sexual abuse effectively become witnesses to ongoing offenses, some of which will remain unsolved. What keeps case workers and investigators motivated is the enormous value of the successes. Finding one offender often results in the recovery of multiple children.

Technology can help

While an enabler of these problems, technology can also help the effort to eliminate online child abuse, and there are organizations dedicated to this purpose. For example, Intel has worked with Thorn, a non-profit founded in 2012 to build technology that defends children from sexual abuse, including software that is used to help law enforcement find sexually exploited children more quickly. Partnering with other WePROTECT Global Alliance members, Intel donated hardware and engineering talent to develop the IT infrastructure at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). 

Additionally, Intel worked with NCMEC to tackle a wide range of problems including storage and routing of their CyberTips – a report generated when a tech company detects evidence of child sexual abuse. Through NCMEC’s CyberTipline, the public and electronic service providers can report suspected online enticement of children for sexual acts, child pornography, child sex trafficking, misleading domain names or images, and other harmful practices. Unfortunately, during the global pandemic, NCMEC saw a huge spike in CyberTips, with the number rising 318% between April 2019 and April 2020.

Intel uses artificial intelligence to help route the rapidly increasing volume (normally in the tens of thousands) of CyberTips to the appropriate jurisdiction, whether in the United States or elsewhere around the globe. Following on this work, Intel contributed to Interpol DevOps, a technical working group that builds better tools for the specialist law enforcement officers who are the recipients of these CyberTips.  

What’s needed?

Unlike regular policing, online detection of crimes against children relies mostly on the voluntary efforts of corporations and non-profits.  While these efforts have resulted in great successes, we believe the technical efforts we’ve participated in could be far more effective with a systematic approach based on consistent global standards and government actions. 

Developing practical policies to further these goals will require a wide range of expertise, and, just as the auto industry has made great contributions to passenger safety, we believe tech companies have a duty to contribute to solving the problems technology enables.  We are honored to join WePROTECT Global Alliance and look forward to working with other members to translate our technical knowledge into better policies.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of WeProtect Global Alliance or any of its members.