Google to Pit Technology Against Child Pornographers

Google announced over the weekend it is spearheading an initiative to build a picture-sharing database aimed at ridding the Web of child pornography.

The company’s new database will rely on “hashing” technology; once an image has been flagged as offensive, it uses an algorithm to identify that photo elsewhere on the Web. While Google has been using hashing technology since 2008, the updated program will include encrypted “fingerprints” of photos that display child abuse or pornography on a cross-industry platform.

That shared database is designed to enable greater collaboration among law enforcement, nonprofit organizations and tech companies like Google. The aim is to speed up the process of identifying and eliminating the exploitative images, as well as help law enforcement take action against the offenders.

In addition, Google will give around US$5 million to organizations and initiatives, including the Internet Watch Foundation and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, that work to fight child exploitation.

About $2 million of that donation will go toward the Child Protection Technology Fund, a Google initiative to develop the technological tools needed to rid the Internet of abusive images.

Google did not respond to our request for further details.

Growing Problem

Despite widespread efforts by law enforcement and nonprofit organizations, child pornography online is only growing. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported about four times the number of images and videos of suspected child abuse in 2011 as it did in 2007.

It’s unrealistic to think that Google could abolish such activity entirely, but its latest initiative is definitely a step in the right direction, said Michael Bachmann, assistant professor of criminal justice at Texas Christian University.

“It is unlikely that such efforts will ever be able to effectively eliminate the distribution of child pornography on the Internet, but Google’s recent initiative is laudable, not only because it constitutes Google’s ongoing effort to combat the distribution of such crime scene photos, but especially because it represents the technically most promising effort to date,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Greater Collaboration

That’s partly because Google is taking advantage of the technology that is already out there and doing what it does best — enabling the sharing of it, said Patrick Corbett, professor at Cooley Law School. Furthermores, its approach is unlikely to be complicated by issues involving judgment calls.

“Google appears to be harnessing technology that merely allows identification of known images of child pornography,” he told TechNewsWorld. “As such, it does not seem likely they will have to determine what constitutes child pornography. It seems that one of the key benefits of this approach is the movement toward sharing the information, thus widening the net being cast to retrieve as much child pornography as possible.”

Much of the program’s success will depend on how well Google can enable that collaboration, said Bachmann.

“Cooperation with law enforcement agencies will be key,” he added. “It is a first step to filter such images, but the collected evidence of who is disseminating these pictures needs to be shared with the appropriate law enforcement agencies in a timely and court-admissible manner to better deter potential offenders from finding new ways to better circumvent these measures.”

Developing those technological tools to combat child exploitation is a natural step for Google, said Jonathan Todres, associate professor of law at Georgia State University College of Law. However, it can have a larger impact than just producing software to stop the spread of offensive images. When a high-profile company like Google makes such efforts, it could spring other companies into action.

“Google’s program serves as an example to other companies,” Todres told TechNewsWorld.

“It shows other businesses that they can use their existing skill set to contribute to solutions. Other companies — for example manufacturers and retailers — monitor their supply chains in real time and thus are well-positioned to prevent trafficking and exploitation in their supply chains,” he pointed out. “The key for each company is to find out how their expertise and skills can contribute to solutions that help protect children from harm.”

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