Sexual abuse of children has been aided and encouraged by the rise of digital networks and platforms. In recent years the problem has been getting worse, according to Kristin Boorse, Director of Product Management at Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children, an anti-trafficking NGO.

Boorse argues a coordinated effort is required but the digital technology to stem the flow of child sexual abuse material now exists. Already, Boorse says, her company’s software has helped identify more than 10,000 victims and improved law enforcement response time by nearly two thirds.

“Technology has transformed our world, for good and for bad. And just as technology has made most of the things in our world faster, more global and more connected, it has had the same impact on the spread of child sexual abuse material,” Boorse said during a keynote at the Amazon Web Services Public Sector Summit in Canberra today.

“Last year in the US alone, there were more than 45 million images and videos of suspected child sexual abuse that were sent to National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.”

Boorse explained a big challenge in combating the spread of the material is detecting it early (the actual number of images is much higher than the 45 million reported). She said currently it is not uncommon for images to be circulated for years before being detected by law enforcement, and can take several more years to identify victims.

That problem exists despite the material generally being circulated on a limited number of platforms and law enforcement agencies having access to useful data, albeit siloed.

Connecting the dots

Kristin Boorse, Director of Product Management at Thorn.

“What if we could use the latest technology to connect disparate data sources of known child sexual abuse content and find victims faster around the world? And what if industry had shared amongst themselves so they could identify, remove and report this content?

“At Thorne that’s what we’re doing. We build technology to connect the dots and empower a critical set of people on the front lines with the tools that they need.”

According to Boorse, the software has helped identify 10,000 victims and investigators report a 65 per cent reduction in time taken to respond. The next goal is creating real time alerts so law enforcement knows as soon as material is posted online, reducing the spread of content, particularly on platforms which may not have the resources to do so otherwise.

“Once you get beyond the largest, and you go to the small and medium sized platforms, they either could never conceive that their platform would be abused in this way or they don’t have the systems that they could build on their own.”

Thorn built the software for the smaller companies and, thanks to machine learning, it will improve over time with more use.

The first platform to use the software, called Safer, is Imgur, an online image sharing platform. Boorse said within 20 minutes Imgur was able to detect and remove a known piece of abuse content.

“But then what they did is they took a proactive step, and they reviewed the user’s account where they found and they reported abuse content that wasn’t even in our system,” Boorse said.

That is the potential exponential impact of digital technology, Boorse says.

“We will reach the point where technology will have enabled us to outrun the perpetrators, and dismantle the communities that normalise and fuel child sexual abuse.”

Thorn uses cloud computing to build its software, tapping US giant AWS for much of the heavy lifting. The benefit of cloud, Boorse says, is easier integration, access to emerging technology and scalability for future roll outs.

“We’ve taken advantage of best in class technology like the services AWS offers that integrate throughout our entire tech stack; from authentication, messaging, storing, scaling, machine learning and more,” Boorse said.

“We focused our vision and prepared our work against one of humanity’s darkest evils. And we will not stop until every child can simply be a kid.”

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