The King of Sweden views a poster describing a new technique to detect child online grooming, developed by industry and led by Microsoft. Also pictured: Linda Jonsson, University of Linköping and Jacqueline Beauchere, Microsoft. Photograph: Susanne Drakborg
World Childhood Foundation, launched in 1999 by Queen Silvia of Sweden, recently marked 20 years of child protection with a roundtable on leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to assist in tackling child sexual exploitation and abuse online.
The day-long event, held last month at the Royal Palace in Stockholm, brought together 60 AI experts, representatives from technology companies, child safety advocates, academics and others to explore new ways to combat the proliferation of child sexual exploitation and abuse imagery (CSEAI) online.
“How can we use AI as a catalyst for child safety online,” asked King Carl XVI Gustaf, who, along with Queen Silvia and other members of Sweden’s royal family, presided over the day’s discussions. “New approaches are needed, so we are bringing together some of the sharpest minds in AI and child protection to share knowledge and experiences.”
The event consisted of a series of presentations, panels and small-group discussions about raising awareness among the broader global population about the “epidemic” that is child sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as the misuse of technology to share illegal imagery and enable on-demand abuse of children tens of thousands of miles away. Experts shared experiences, ideas and data, including that reports of child sexual abuse videos to the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) had risen 541% in 2018 compared to the prior year. Moreover, children of all ages and backgrounds are susceptible to sexual exploitation with more than 56% of the children in Interpol’s database identified as prepubescent. “Nothing surprises us anymore,” said one law enforcement official.
More, faster needed from all stakeholders
The roundtable concluded with a series of observations and recommendations from a variety of sectors, including law and public policy, technology, and victim advocacy, including that:
- Governments need to take a more active role in addressing the issue. Indeed, no country or society is immune from child sexual abuse and the vile content that makes its way online. Experts acknowledged the work of some standouts governments like the U.K., Australia and others, but called for more globalization and harmonization
- Children need to be acknowledged as rights-holders, including their right to privacy, and not just as “objects in need of protection”
- Speed will continue to present a challenge with technological advancements moving at internet speed; academic research occupying a distant second position; and policy, law and regulation lagging significantly behind
- Civil society needs to do more and, in particular, victims’ rights groups and other organizations must inject a sense of urgency into the dialogue, and
- Hope must be offered by believing in the brilliance and power of the human and the machine working together to combat such deep-rooted societal ills
I had the privilege of attending and presenting details on the progress of the development of a new method to detect potential instances of child online grooming for sexual purposes. The technique is the result of a cross-industry hackathon that Microsoft hosted in November 2018. Engineers from Microsoft and three other companies continued to develop the process for 12 months following the hackathon, and we intend to make it freely available in 2020 to enable others to examine historical chat conversations for potential indicia of grooming. (Grooming for sexual purposes takes place when someone befriends a child with the intent of gaining the child’s trust for sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or trafficking.) For more about the technique being developed, see this post.
Queen Silvia builds on Vatican remarks
The week before the Stockholm roundtable, a number of attendees also participated in a conference in Rome, Promoting Digital Child Dignity: From Concept to Action. This event was sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the Child Dignity Alliance and the government of the United Arab Emirates.
Queen Silvia was a featured speaker at the Rome conference, noting that when she founded World Childhood Foundation, she hoped she could use her voice to highlight the global problem of child sexual exploitation and abuse. She imagined that the foundation would soon close because it would no longer be needed, as the global scourge that is child sexual abuse would have been eliminated. “To speak about the unspeakable, and to give children back their right to a childhood,” she said. “(Yet,) 20 years later, here we are, with an ever-increasing number of children at risk of abuse and exploitation online.”
Along with several speakers that followed her in Rome, the queen called on all stakeholders to come together and do more: policymakers, technology companies, civil society and faith-based groups. “For the child who has suffered abuse; for the child who is at risk; for the child who carries guilt and shame – for this child, we have to speak with one voice and to act collectively.” (The Queen’s Rome remarks were distributed to participants of the Stockholm roundtable.)
A third landmark event on combating CSEAI will be held later this month in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The African Union, the WePROTECT Global Alliance and the U.K. Government will sponsor the Global Summit to Tackle Online Child Sexual Exploitation on December 11 and 12.
Microsoft and the challenge of Online Child Sexual Exploitation
This increased attention from several corners of the globe and from new and different stakeholder groups is both needed and encouraging. Additional strides will follow only when we embrace a whole-of-society approach and all stakeholders take part in this important fight.
Microsoft has been combating the spread of CSEAI online for nearly two decades. We first became aware of the magnitude of these online horrors in 2003 when a lead detective from the Toronto Police Department sent an email to our then CEO Bill Gates, asking for help using technology to track down purveyors of CSEAI and for assistance with the detective’s goal of rescuing child victims. Microsoft responded with a $1 million investment and the creation of a technology still in use today by some law enforcement agencies to share investigative information.
Our commitment to create technology to help fight CSEAI online continued with the invention of PhotoDNA, PhotoDNA Cloud Service and PhotoDNA for Video. Progress has been made over the last 20 years, but more needs to be done, including raising awareness, educating young people and the wider public, reporting illegal content to technology companies and hotlines, and continuing to create technologies and techniques to assist in online detection and reporting.
To learn more about the World Childhood Foundation, visit the organization’s website. To learn what Microsoft is doing to tackle child sexual exploitation and abuse online, see this link, and to learn more about digital safety generally, go to www.microsoft.com/saferonline, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.