Microsoft Helps Canada Police Track Online Child Abusers

Canadian law enforcement officials have enlisted Microsoft’s cooperation in attacking child exploitation on the Internet, with a computer system that allows authorities all over the world to collaborate and communicate on child predators and child porn purveyors.

The custom-designed software system — the result of more than US$4 million from Microsoft for development and integration — will allow police involved in tracking and prosecuting child abusers to share data and communicate with each other in real time.

Dubbed the Child Exploitation Tracking System (CETS), the initiative has already netted an alleged child pornographer, who was arrested last November in Toronto after authorities discovered him by using a beta version of the new software system, described as a “computerized database and investigation system.”

Officials are disclosing little about the technology behind the Microsoft Canada software. While privacy advocates are typically wary of unknown tracking systems, most agree that the effort marks positive progress against the growing problem of child predators using the Internet to commit their crimes.

Calling on Technology

More than two years in the making, the CETS effort began with an e-mail from Toronto Police Detective Sergeant Paul Gillespie to Microsoft chief Bill Gates in 2003. The collaboration that was subsequently forged will give law enforcement officials a new tool to track and target offenders.

“Criminals are using the Internet at an unprecedented rate to exploit the most vulnerable of our society: our children,” said a statement from Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan. “I commend Canadian law enforcement and Microsoft Canada for their vision and leadership in creating a tool unlike any other in the world that will help keep our children safe from online predators.”

Organizers of the effort indicated several police agencies in Canada, including the Royal Mounted Canadian Police and Toronto Police Service, have already integrated CETS into their IT systems, and a project has been established to assist in the ongoing deployment of the system.

Predators Become Vulnerable

The collaboration between Microsoft and Canadian authorities addresses an issue that computer security experts face with the borderless nature of the Internet, which allows the formation of underground networks and communities around illicit activity. This activity includes attempts to snare children via personal, online correspondence.

As these types of attempts have increased with the growth of Internet use and bandwidth, the perpetrators increasingly run the risk of getting caught, according to security expert Ken Dunham, director of malicious code at iDefense, who called the CETS “good news.”

“What we’ve seen is these people are very easily identifiable on the Internet if they’re aggressive and act on it,” Dunham told TechNewsWorld. “If they’re actively attempting to share, trade or sell — because of that activity, they become vulnerable.”

Privacy Concerns Secondary

Meanwhile, although there is a general public acceptance of some privacy constraints for the sake of protecting children, privacy experts have indicated that many privacy-invasive technologies simply use the prospect of child exploitation as a front or foil for the tracking of others, such as alleged drug offenders.

Dunham indicated that there is always going to be some degree of concern about misuse or abuse of tracking technology and its impact on privacy, however, he said the enhanced ability of law enforcement to prevent child exploitation is compelling to most. The security expert — who said compromised computers can be used to host child pornography in addition to spreading spam or viruses — said privacy concerns shouldn’t prevent progress against the bad guys.

“We shouldn’t be fearful of implementing new technologies just because we’re concerned about abuse,” he said. “We do need to evolve and develop those new technologies with abuse in mind. It’s great to see the technologies push forward.”

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