Preventing Technology-Facilitated Exploitation

The UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation hosted a panel discussion on May 6 titled, Public Policy for Innovation in the Digital Age: Preventing Technology-Facilitated Exploitation. Information technology experts, social workers, security administrators, and researchers attended this sixth and final event of the 2013-2014 Public Policy for Innovation in the Digital Age series. The event featured speakers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, The International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC), Microsoft, and Slate.

Ernie Allen, President and CEO of ICMEC, discussed how technology has changed the face of exploitation. He noted that the Internet has made illegal images of children relatively easy to share on a global scale, multiplying what were once isolated incidents. In addition, sexual abuse of children can occur digitally and remotely, using web cameras and accomplices.

Cody Monk, Special Agent at the FBI, agreed, described the Internet as a game changer that has taken away the barrier between victim and offender. Today, the victim and offender are now sometimes connected without the victim even knowing it, he added. The offender-to-offender trading industry of images and video online has also grown tremendously in the last 5-7 years. To address this rapidly evolving problem, Monk stated that the FBI is working with public and private partners to address current trends and to exchange information on how to innovate in preparation for future trends.

One of the important challenges in addressing these issues involves the role of anonymity. For political dissidents and journalists, tools that enable Internet anonymity can play a vital positive role in fostering change and in gathering and disseminating news. However, in the hands of sex offenders, traffickers and other criminals, these same tools can be used for criminal purposes.

Infiltration is a one technique used to identify criminal use of the Internet, but Allen stated that leading law enforcement experts around the world believe it can be time consuming, expensive, and sometimes ineffective. Alternatively, many law enforcement investigators wait for offenders to make a mistake, though, by definition, this means the more careful offenders often escape prosecution.

Adrian Chandley, Principal Program Manager at Microsoft, explained that Microsoft’s PhotoDNA software is able to capture information unique to an image in a fingerprint which can then be used to find other copies of the same image even if they have been resized or saved in a different format. PhotoDNA is used by industry, law enforcement and organizations such as ICMEC to identify copies of known illegal images of children, and can assist law enforcement investigators and leading child protection organizations in identifying child pornography victims. Fingerprints of child pornography images are distributed to Microsoft and other Photo DNA users who can then find and remove matching images from their systems. Chandley explained that one major problem for industry was that only fingerprints (or hashes) for images with identifiable victims are made available, and that the much larger set of hashes for all known child abuse images are not. These hashes should be used to prevent users from encountering these images.

Amanda Hess, Staff Writer at Slate, shared a personal story of digital exploitation that exemplified another type of behavior raising complex legal questions. She explained that an anonymous person created a Twitter account dedicated to slandering and making violent threats to her.  Hess had to decide whether to treat this situation as a criminal act, or to simply disregard it as offensive. She decided to call the local police, but they did not ultimately pursue the case.  Part of the issue was blurry jurisdictional lines: the offender was unlikely to live in the same state as Hess, and police would have needed to subpoena Twitter to find out his identity. Hess suggested that perhaps another reason for the lack of action was uncertainty about what constituents illegal online exploitation of women. Nearly everyone recognizes that the exploitation of children is wrong, she said, but sexist content and exploitation of women is part of some social norms, which presents an issue that goes beyond the online space.

Cody Monk explained that experiences like Hess’s, which happen far too often, underscores how critical it is that law enforcement at all levels share information on trends, policy, and technology in order to adequately confront technology-enabled threats in strategic and tactical ways.

Preventing exploitation is critically important, and Ernie Allen expressed his view that the biggest challenge to getting more attention and resources to address this issue preemptively is to educate and inform. Trafficking is often not reported by police and is a problem that the world does not see. An additional challenge, he said, is to convince people to engage in discussions about combating these crimes. Often, corporations and policy makers do not want to think about these unpleasant and horrifying issues. But without addressing the lack of suitable legal repercussions, and without more public education of technology-facilitated exploitation, the problem will only continue to grow.

To learn more about strategies to encourage the growth of the digital economy while preventing the sexual exploitation of children and other criminal activity, see the new REPORT by the Digital Economy Task Force (DETF), which was sponsored by ICMEC and Thomson Reuters and comprised of leading experts from government, the private sector, academia, and think tanks. These experts included Taskforce Co-chair Ernie Allen, John Villasenor of UCLA, and panelist Cody Monk of the FBI. The DETF worked to identify a regulatory framework that fosters the growth of the digital economy, including digital currencies and alternate payment systems, while addressing anonymizing technology and the growth of “deep web” marketplaces that allow illegal commerce.

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