Child Protection

Investing in AI to Protect Children Online

In this series, Nicole Phocas and Ashley Solle reflect on their endeavors during their time as private sector engagement interns at ECPAT-USA

Last week, End Violence Against Children invited ECPAT-USA to attend a panel event titled “Investing in AI to Make Children Safe Online” to inform industry representatives from a range of public, private, and nonprofit sector organizations on recent technological advances toward fighting issues of child abuse, cyberbullying, and child sexual exploitation and trafficking. After a light lunch and time to network with the attendees, we took our seats to hear what the four panelists had to say.   

The first of the panel’s presenters was Emily Cashman Kirstein, Senior Manager of Government Affairs at Thorn. Thorn’s mission is to eliminate child sexual abuse material from the internet; Kirstein explained how there is a massive rise in cases of child sexual exploitation and abuse in the new internet age, illustrating the importance of focusing on technology.  She brought up a new Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) index on child sexual abuse and exploitation by country, which was developed in collaboration with Thorn to provide researchers and the public with valuable information on how countries are combatting child exploitation issues. Interestingly, the scoring of countries was influenced in part by ECPAT-USA’s The Code.

Of course, just because a child has been liberated from a particular sexual abuse situation does not mean that online imagery of the survivor has been removed. To address the difficulty of locating every platform and location where child sexual abuse imagery might have been shared or posted, Thorn is working on a victim identification software for law enforcement agencies. By creating facial recognition software, Thorn can locate and (ideally) remove the material and protect the survivor. Thorn is also working on research and development, including efforts to make platforms more hostile to abusers and using technology to locate offenders. We found these efforts to integrate technology into the fight, from the index to facial recognition software, to be incredibly fascinating and innovative. We don’t doubt that they’ll be a useful addition to law enforcement as well as victim protection and research on trafficking

Chris Fabian, another panelist, discussed the current work of UNICEF Ventures and UN Innovation Network. The goal of UNICEF Ventures is to make investments into technological initiatives around the world which progress the organization’s goals surrounding the protection, empowerment, and defense of children. UNICEF Ventures is focused on creating an AI program that can conduct data analysis for regions where data is scarce, usually developing countries. There wasn’t a direct link to our focus areas, but his comments on collecting data from local sources highlight the need for accurate and sustainable numbers in order to conduct research on the most efficient ways to fight child sexual exploitation. Unfortunately for now, advanced technological infrastructure is only readily available in the developed world, so the scope of combating sexual exploitation of children through AI is limited to this region.

Dr. Rhema Vaithaianathan, Co-Director of the Center for Social Data Analytics at Auckland University of Technology and Project Lead on an international research effort to create Child Abuse Predictive Risk Analysis software followed Fabian’s discussion on AI programs by discussing her efforts and the challenges she has been facing in the development of algorithms.  Most notably, Vaithianathan and her research team have been running into issues in facial recognition software developing unfair biases when determining the risk that a certain child may face for abuse. The technical details of the issue are complex, but the problem also highlights that child sexual exploitation and abuse can happen anywhere to any child from any background.  

The final panelist is Suvi Uski, CEO at Someturva, a Finland-based start-up which has created an AI-powered online legal service for cyberbullying and social media harassment issues. Uski, whose background in social psychology gives her a unique perspective on a topic that is often strictly scientific, emphasized that AI is critical in the nonprofit sector for reaching a larger number of at-risk people with fewer monetary resources.  

Technology plays a large role in enabling sexual exploitation of children, but can also be pivotal in the prevention and prosecution of sexual exploitation of children. Including AI in multidisciplinary approach to combating the issue is a critical step in adapting to the rise in cases involving the internet.

What is New York City Doing to Protect Children from Sexual Exploitation?

This year, ECPAT-USA celebrates 25 years of child protection.  Things have changed for the better since we began working to protect children from sexual exploitation.

New York State passed its Safe Harbor law, the first in the nation, in 2008.  While it is not the country’s strongest law to ensure children are protected from sexual exploitation, it did mark the beginning for New York to get more serious about training, awareness, prevention and protection for vulnerable children.  Read our report “Steps to Safety”  to learn more about the array of Safe Harbor laws across the country.  

I sat down recently with Susan Morley, Special Advisor for Investigations to the Commissioner and Selina Higgins, Director of Child Trafficking Prevention and Policy of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), the leadership team for implementing protections for sexually exploited children in the city.  They described extensive training, services and awareness raising going on throughout the system.

  • In 2012 ACS published its initial policy on serving sexually exploited children.
  • Almost a thousand ACS, foster care and preventive agency staff were trained in Child Trafficking Awareness and Engagement/Interviewing skills during 2015.  Training is ongoing for staff and sub-contractor foster care and preventive agencies, and detention service providers.  Over a hundred  agencies around the city in which ACS works have received training.
  • ACS hired its first Director of Child Trafficking Prevention and Policy in 2015, and is hiring an additional Child Trafficking Prevention Specialist.
  • They created a specialized team of former NYPD Detectives to locate missing youth at risk of CSEC.
  • Funding for services for trafficked youth was provided to eight youth-serving organizations.
  • Work is taking place to develop a Child Trafficking Database so that we know how many sexually exploited children have been identified.  
  • The agency created an internal “Child Trafficking Mailbox” to facilitate communications, to provide alerts of trafficking cases, and to receive consultations, resource ideas and referral information.
  • This year ACS is again providing 12 sessions of its full-day Child Trafficking Awareness and Skills training, with 5 dates targeted specifically for preventive service agencies.

The buying and selling of children for sexual exploitation is a lucrative business everywhere in the United States, not just New York and other big cities.

But for 25 years there has been a growing movement to stop it. ECPAT-USA is proud of the progress we have made.