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Internet Watch Foundation raises stakes in war against online child porn

Organisation’s work around tackling the spread of child sexual abuse imagery is being enhanced with advanced video tagging technology and artificial intelligence

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is using advanced technology to enhance its work on eradicating the publication and sharing of online child sexual abuse.

In an annual report outlining statistics and trends in identifying and removing child sexual abuse imagery globally, the charity found record amounts of such imagery in 2018 – 105,047 URLs.

This was achieved through improvements in the IWF’s technology introduced last year to help speed up the detection and assessment of criminal images.

“We’re working to put the best new technology into the hands of some of the world’s best experts,” said the charity’s report. “And judging by our 2018 figures, it’s an equation that works.”

This includes the full roll-out, following a successful trial in 2015, of Microsoft PhotoDNA, a technology that tags images with a “hash”, or a unique digital signature, which allows comparison with other tagged photos to find copies of the same image.

When matched with a database containing hashes of previously identified illegal images, the technology can help organisations to detect child exploitation material.

Once images are confirmed by IWF analysts as criminal material, information is passed on to tech companies, the idea being that they can prevent offenders from sharing, storing and even uploading it onto their systems.

This year, the charity is evolving the use of PhotoDNA for video hashing, and has begun to identify and tag videos, which are then added to IWF’s “hash list”. This has tagged more than 345,000 images so far.

The charity is also experimenting with artificial intelligence (AI), and predicts that auto-classification will become part of its everyday work. It is collaborating with tech companies to enhance its services with the technology.

The IWF pointed out in its report that while harnessing the power of AI is important to enhancing its work, “it needs to be balanced with real people”, referring to its analysts. It added that what success looks like for the charity requires “a balance of human expertise and technical development”.

The charity is also enhancing its provision of keywords typically used by offenders to its members, to improve search returns and reduce the abuse of their networks. By December 2018, the IWF had identified 453 words associated with child abuse images and videos using its crawler tool.

Read more about UK government digital policy

In 2019, the charity will be working on a project with domain name registry Nominet which will seek to identify additional terms used by criminals when they are looking for child porn via search engines.  

A key challenge driving the technology enhancements at the IWF is the increasing consumption of child exploitation imagery. The charity says demand for such material is soaring, with an estimated 100,000 people in the UK actively seeking child porn.

That is despite the decrease seen in such imagery being hosted in the UK, currently at the lowest level ever recorded – 41 URLs or 0.04% of the global total, down from 18% in 1996.

 IWF chief executive Susie Hargreaves said the continued demand for child porn online presents “a constant battle”.

“Despite us removing more and more images than ever before, and despite creating and using some of the world’s leading technology, it’s clear that this problem is far from being solved,” she said.

Victoria Atkins, minister for crime, safeguarding and vulnerability, said child sexual abuse material needs to “stop from appearing online in the first place”.

The minister said the Online Harms whitepaper, launched this month, will ensure tech companies are held accountable for removing such material from their platforms.

In a related development towards increasing online safety, the UK government has announced the world’s first regulations for age verification when accessing online pornography.

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