Europol headquarters

Europol escalates war on paedophiles with AI and facial recognition technology

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A project to gauge how many children new AI and facial-recognition technology has saved from rape has been launched as pan-continental police forces seek to unmask anonymous abusers who use the dark web and encrypted apps to hide their activity.

Detectives commonly use software which can categorise by severity the images found on suspects’ devices and compare these against files on databases shared with internet companies in a bid to expunge the material from the internet.

Artificial intelligence-type systems also increasingly flag up elements within pictures as potential clues that could help investigators locate and safeguard victims. Until now, there has been scant research into how effective this has been and how many children have been identified and rescued thanks to it.

Now, a classified Europol study looking into this is being written up as part of the war on online paedophiles, a source said. The escalating battle also entails surveillance tactics and fake websites set up by police with the aim of luring in perpetrators so that intelligence can be gathered about them. The laborious and distressing process of viewing and grading images of child sex abuse found on suspects’ devices - a job that takes a psychological toll on policing professionals - is also being automated thanks to new software.

A spokesman for Europol said the organisation uses “leading edge technology for examining material depicting child sexual abuse and exploitation”, adding, “The organisation continues to explore the use of this and to develop additional tools, including artificial intelligence, to assist.”

Police across the continent are blending new technology with older tactics to try and chip away at the perception that anonymous networks are safe spaces for those with a sexual interest in children. Due to the shield of anonymity it affords to its users, the encryption-protected ‘dark net’ has been a magnet for child sex abusers such as Richard Huckle, a 30-year-old British ex-pat handed 22 life sentences by a judge last year after admitting an unprecedented number of paedophile offences.

Huckle chronicled his rapes and assaults of impoverished Malaysian children aged between six months and 12 years old on a now defunct ‘dark net’ website called The Love Zone (TLZ), where pictures were shared before he was apprehended by the UK’s National Crime Agency while on a visit to the UK in 2014.

Identifying Huckle was only possible because Australian police had taken over the running of TLZ as part of an audacious operation after arresting one of its ringleaders. Police-run “honeypot” websites and deployment of officers to pose as children in web chat rooms are now increasingly part of routine strategies being adopted across Europe to try and make the internet a more hostile environment for paedophiles, experts say.

Professor Richard Wortley, director of the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science, said: “What’s special about the internet is that it gives you that sense of anonymity. This is about looking at how you can take that away. Overseas, I experiment with putting so-called stop pages up, so you’re out there searching for child pornography and suddenly a note comes up from the police saying, ‘We think you’re looking for child pornography. Stop it or we’ll come and get you.’ Sting operations are also quite successful in creating the perception that the internet is not safe.”

Jim Gamble, a former senior police officer and ex-head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, said widespread use of encryption was a “huge concern” but that infiltration of criminal groups as a means of circumventing the anonymity provided by the ‘dark net’ was now a “tried and trusted tactic”.

“If I was a paedophile, a terrorist or a drug trafficker, I wouldn’t have to develop my own form of encryption or use even PGP [an outdated encryption programme], as a lot did in the past. I would simply download WhatsApp,” he added. “The level of encryption available to me there means that my communications can’t be intercepted even with a warrant, that content in transit cannot be intercepted even with a warrant.”

Gamble added: “The fact of the matter is that law enforcement is going to have to become more imaginative and creative. Where the likes of WhatsApp say they’ve thrown the key away, well, the key is only thrown away for as long as smart people employed by government or others allow it to be.”

UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd has launched repeated attacks on end-to-end encryption, saying earlier this year that “real people” do not need unbreakable secrecy for their communications with friends via messaging apps. French President Emmanuel Macron has said internet firms should be forced to introduce measures allowing the authorities to decode encrypted messages where there was deemed to be a threat to life. Germany, where the public has historically been hostile to surveillance because of its associations with the Stasi, is yet another EU country seen as becoming increasingly belligerent in its attitude towards encryption.

However, the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs recently tabled a proposal that would mean end-to-end encryption would become mandatory for all forms of electronic communication across all member states. A major EU report on encryption is due to be published later this month and could increase tensions between the bloc and its member states.

Professor John Walker, an expert in digital forensics who has infiltrated groups on the ‘dark web’, said police could already legally compel suspects to hand over the pin code to their mobile phone and the keys to unlock encrypted images. Those who refused to do so could face five years in prison, but Walker said: “If you’re a paedophile and have a lot of encrypted pictures, you’re going to take that lesser sentence and not give them the key.”

Asked why he thought people felt they needed military-strength encryption for mundane day-to-day chats with their friends, Walker said: “They don’t. I think it’s just the cool thing to do, to be honest. I think they’ve been caught up in the mystique of their own self-importance.”

In the UK alone, an estimated 50,000 have actively sought out child abuse images online, the National Crime Agency revealed in 2015.

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