April 15, 2024

Inside the police scouring the Internet to save abused children – POLITICO

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Expressed by artificial intelligence.

EUROPOL HEADQUARTERS, THE HAGUE — “Please call. Do not enter,” read the sign on the door of Europe’s heavily guarded police headquarters in the Netherlands.

Inside, detectives looked at their computers and examined a video of a newborn girl being sexually abused.

A group of international detectives were trying to identify details (a toy, a clothing label, a sound) that would allow them to rescue the girl and arrest those who sexually abused her, recorded it and then shared it on the Internet.

Even a small clue could help locate the country where the girl was assaulted, allowing the case to be transferred to the appropriate law enforcement authority for further investigation. These details are important when police try to tackle crimes committed behind closed doors but spread around the world online.

Finding and apprehending child sex offenders is frightening and frustrating most of the time, but sometimes enormously rewarding, police officers who are part of the EU agency Europol’s international task force told POLITICO.

Criminals are getting better at covering their digital tracks, and law enforcement officials say they don’t have the tools they need to keep up. The increasing use of encrypted online communications makes investigators’ jobs more difficult, especially as a pandemic that kept people at home and online led to a flood of images and videos of abuse.

In 2022, social media giant Meta Platforms found and reported 26 million images on Facebook and Instagram. Teens’ favorite apps, Snapchat and TikTok, respectively submitted more than 550,000 and nearly 290,000 reports to the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an organization that acts as a clearinghouse under U.S. law for material content. of child sexual abuse (CSAM) that technology companies detect and place.

In December, the European Commission also ordered Meta to explain what it was doing to combat the spread of illegal sexual images taken by minors themselves and shared through Instagram, under the new EU content moderation regulation, the Digital Services Act (DSA).

Politicians around the world are eager to act. In the European Union and the United Kingdom, lawmakers have drafted laws to unearth more illegal content and expand law enforcement powers to combat child sexual abuse material.

But those efforts have sparked a fierce public debate over what takes priority: giving police new capabilities to pursue criminals or preserving privacy and protections against mass online surveillance by states and digital platforms.

The scale of the problem

The Europol task force has met twice a year since 2014 to speed up investigations to identify victims, most recently in November. It has almost tripled in size to 33 researchers representing 26 countries, including Germany, Australia and the United States.

“You may recognize things that are in the images or you may recognize background sounds or voices. If you do it together with several nationalities in a room, it can be really effective,” said Marijn Schuurbiers, head of operations at Europol’s European Cybercrime Center (EC3).

Since 2017, the agency has periodically asked the public for help identifying objects in images such as plastic bags and a logo on a school uniform. Jerry Lampen/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

Still, detectives too often feel like they are swimming against the tide as the amount of child sexual abuse material circulating online increases.

Europol created a database in 2016 and this system now contains 85 million unique photographs and videos of children, many of which are found on pedophile forums on the “dark web”, the part of the Internet that is not publicly searchable. and requires special software to navigate.

“We can work for hours and hours and we’re still scratching the surface. It’s terrifying,” said Mary, a national police officer from a non-EU country with 17 years of experience. She requested that her last name not be used to protect her identity while conducting research work.

In November, the task force reviewed 432 files, each containing tens of thousands of images, and found the most likely country for 285 of the abused children in the images. Police believe they have likely identified 74 of the victims, three of whom were rescued at the time of this publication. Two criminals were arrested.

“We have some successes. But all I can see is those we can’t help,” Mary said.

Many Western agencies outside the U.S. are restricted by privacy provisions in the software they use, such as facial recognition tools. They often have to make do with a combination of manual analysis and freely available tools they can obtain from the Internet.

“If you have thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of images, it’s basically impossible to review them manually, one by one,” Schuurbiers said.

Since 2017, the agency has been regularly asking the public for help identifying objects in images such as plastic bags and a logo on a school uniform. Europol said it had received 27,000 tips from internet detectives including investigative outlet Bellingcat, some of which led to 23 children being identified and five offenders being prosecuted.

According to Europol, “dark web” groups remain the main place where criminals share illegal content.

But police and child protection hotlines are seeing an increasing number of images appearing on popular and accessible platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Instagram. The pandemic worsened this as more children and teenagers also joined social media and gaming websites where criminals became better at grooming victims and blackmailing them into creating sexual content.

Law enforcement agencies around the world have also raised the alarm that criminals are also connecting with minors and exchanging illegal content on encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Signal and iMessage, making it extremely difficult to find the content. WhatsApp, for example, scans users’ photos and descriptions but cannot monitor their highly secure messages.

Find more material on child sexual abuse

The crisis over the proliferation of child sexual abuse material online has seen governments push for sweeping new laws to make it possible for law enforcement to investigate more online material and use artificial intelligence tools to help them.

The European Commission has proposed a law that could force technology companies such as Meta, Apple and Google to scan messages and content stored in the cloud for images of abuse, and even conversations of criminals seeking to manipulate minors by order of a judge. . Companies would have to report the content, which could end up in the hands of Europol or other national investigators, and then delete it.

The United Kingdom recently passed the Online Safety Act, which some legal experts say would allow the country’s platform regulator, Ofcom, to force companies to break encryption to find sexual abuse. Government and Ofcom officials have said companies would not currently be forced to monitor content because there are currently no tools to bypass encryption and also preserve privacy.

Both plans have sparked widespread backlash among digital rights activists, technology experts and some lawyers. They fear that the laws will effectively force tech companies to ditch encryption and that indiscriminate scanning will lead to mass surveillance.

Negotiations over the EU bill remain on delicate ground, with politicians and member countries clashing over how far to go in pursuing possible illegal child abuse. And Brussels also finalized a new law in December, the Artificial Intelligence Law, which governs how law enforcement will be able to use artificial intelligence tools, such as facial recognition software, to analyze footage and images.

Still, EU lawmakers have already significantly expanded Europol’s powers to build new artificial intelligence tools and handle more data. Under the Digital Services Law, Europol and the national police will also be able to quickly force technology companies to remove illegal content from public access and to hand over information about the users who publish such images.

Anne, a Europol investigator, said she doesn’t keep track of the number of children she has identified in her 12 years working in the field, but she remembers them. She requested that her last name not be used to protect her investigative work.

“What I will always remember about my cases are the pictures,” he said. “They stay in my head.”

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