Home Office boosts tools to tackle online child abuse

New systems will be introduced to speed up investigations and limit the number of distressing images viewed by law enforcement officers

The Home Office has boosted its technology stack aimed at fending off digital child abuse with three new tools.

Capability of the Child Abuse Image Database (CAID), in place since 2014, is being augmented following trials with the additional functionality, intended to speed up investigations, promote collaboration and limit the number of indecent images police officers have to view.

CAID currently holds 13 million images, and the number grows by about half a million on a bi-monthy basis. The Home Office has invested £18.2 million into the programme since its launch, with the new innovations costing £1.76 million.

“This game-changing tech will help us do this and will be vital in the fight against online child abusers,” said home secretary Sajid Javid about the new capabilities of the database.

The new features, developed in partnership between the CAID Innovation Lab and UK suppliers Qumodo, Vigil AI and Cyan Forensics, encompass a fast-forensic tool intended to rapidly analyse seized devices and find images already known to law enforcement agencies.

The fast-forensic tool is expected to free up police time, as the new tech can process 1TB of data in 30 minutes compared to the previous 24 hour timescale.

An image categorisation algorithm is also being introduced, to assist officers to identify and sort up to 2,000 illegal images an hour, from the current 200 images, under severity categories.

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Machine grading is hoped to relieve officers of distress related to viewing child abuse images. The Home Office is also discussing with the senior Judiciary and other agencies how to use the technology in prosecutions to relieve investigators of psychological pressures.

In addition, capability to detect images with scene matching technology to help identify children in indecent images of children in order to safeguard victims.

The annual assessment of policing in England and Wales released this month noted that a consistent approach to technology is one of the key actions needed to avoid “unacceptable compromises in quality of service levels of public safety” and this includes online child safety.

“Most children are now more at risk in their own bedrooms than they are on the streets,” said chief inspector of constabulary Thomas Winsor. “This type of offending is not just about child sexual abuse and fraud, but radicalisation, harassment and stalking too.

“Some of the corporations in question now own and operate what, to many people, have become significant pieces of public infrastructure,” he said. “Their stewardship of these networks and systems should now be subject to appropriately stringent public interest regulation.”

Safety framework

To tackle the accountability issue, the government introduced the world’s first framework designed to hold internet companies responsible for the safety of those using their services, as well as to tackle potential harm to users.

Child sexual exploitation is one of the key areas covered by the Online Harms white paper. Commenting on the new measures when they were launched, TechUK’s head of policy, Vinous Ali, said the UK is still a long way from achieving its goals.

“The framework must be complemented by renewed efforts to ensure children, young people and adults alike have the skills and awareness to navigate the digital world safely and securely,” she said at the time.

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