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In a previous post, I applauded the FBI for its focus on child rape. The FBI is right: technology can help stop it. Making everyone chronically technologically vulnerable is the wrong approach. Apple is headed in the right direction: invisible, default, trivially easy to use online safety.
Lack of privacy and inability to secure our own digital properties makes not only adults but also children easier to target, surveil, and act against. Criminals will subvert others’ accounts, use botnets, and otherwise obtain anonymity. All the current surveillance and weakening of the infrastructure achieves is a weak infrastructure. This means greater vulnerability for us all, including the children who are suffering or at risk.
Congress is not merely standing in the way of the misguided proposals to prevent a secure, reliable online experience. Many in Congress are actively leading, even competing for leadership, to make the prosecution of child rape victims a thing of the past. Even some children saved by the FBI itself end up in jail.
Identifying victims requires cooperation between law enforcement and technologists. This requires that the FBI ratchet down the rhetoric.
First, technology can help identification of those children who are arrested as victims of exploitation rather than criminal. Such a change can save roughly 1,500 children a year from going to prison for having been exploited.
How do you determine who is a child when there is a lack of documentation and no trust? Artificial intelligence applied to TSA-like scans of those arrested for prostitution has the potential to differentiate between the sex worker and the under-age for whom no true consent is possible. It is particularly effective under 17 years of age. Scanning, linear predictions, and machine learning can indicate age within a year. Obviously, life is profoundly difficult for exploited people and unimaginably difficult for sexually exploited children. They grow up too fast and age too quickly. Identification of children incapable of consenting is critically important so these kids can be helped, not prosecuted. The FBI can bring law enforcement to the table, like the District Attorney who prosecuted a thirteen year old girl and let her thirty-four
boyfriend go with no charges.
Once a predator is brought down, methods for fighting financial and online crime can be used to identify flows of money (and bits). Complex systems analyses can identify webs of criminality and deceit, once one link in a predatory web is brought down. Studies of patterns in network communities can help law enforcement.
Also, understanding the vulnerabilities that empower criminals is a natural way to limit the resources of criminals. The computer scientists who brought down Conficker and the security experts at Microsoft who have been working to bring down botnets limit access to resources for criminals of all types. Finding the resources that were used in each crime and recovering these for legitimate commerce constrains criminal resources online, potentially virtually cornering criminals.
Computer scientists, industry, and law enforcement must work together to make a difference right now.
The FBI is right. Child rape is a horror, and needs to be stopped. Making everyone vulnerable online is not the way forward. Increasingly inaccurate and even hostile rhetoric undermines the trust we need to work together.
Jean Camp is the Director of the Security Informatics Program at Indiana University Bloomington.