It’s no secret that, while the internet has been an enormous and efficient connector of people across the globe, the internet has also fueled and perpetuated a number of huge issues in our society—and not always for the better.
One of the most prominent of these negative impacts is the child sexual exploitation industry’s dark relationship with the internet.
Before the internet’s inception, it was both more difficult and more risky for sexual predators to find potential victims and sell them to clients. Now, with the growth of technology, finding and selling human beings has become as simple as a few clicks.
And while it’s not a guarantee that every child on the internet will come in contact with a predator who wants to kidnap them or physically control them and exploit them, it absolutely does happen.
For finding potential victims, sexual predators now have the ability to anonymously identify vulnerable youths by scoping out their social media profiles, initiating contact utilizing inaccurate—or even completely fake—profiles, and beginning the grooming process. Moreover, sexual predators have the ability to build a sense of trust with their target that may not have been possible face to face; they can use flattery and phrases to make the child feel understood and important.
On the other side of the coin, sexual predators can compel their victim to act by gaining power over them. The predator gains this power by stalking or monitoring accounts, sending threatening messages, or spreading rumors about their victims.
With regard to selling victims, it’s as simple as uploading a craigslist ad once they’ve made contact with the minor. Sexual predators will find “dating” and “personals” sites that offer a little more than they suggest, and then upload an ad with a name, short description, phone number, and explicit photos of their victim. No joke, that’s all it takes to get the calls rolling in.
Thankfully, the world has started taking note and has begun to respond. More specifically, as sexual predators have begun to use technology for their exploitative purposes, the technology industry has used their own technology to fight back.
Here’s how one international company is doing just that.
Microsoft has created an online tool to fight sex trafficking
Bill Gates’ multinational technology company, Microsoft, is one of a number of technology companies to have taken a stand against online child exploitation and abuse.
Recently, Microsoft created an automated system designed to detect sexual predators trying to groom children online.
The system’s name? Project Artemis. What it does is even cooler than its name.
Project Artemis’ job is to spot patterns of communication in conversations. Then, based on those patterns of speech and the words being used in the conversation, the system will assign a rating for the likelihood that one of the participants is trying to groom the other. The rating part of the system is incredibly useful because it allows those using the system to flag higher risk conversations for human moderator review and, in some cases, to immediately send conversations that exhibit an imminent threat to law enforcement.
In tracking the movements, manipulative language, and grooming techniques used by sexual predators in flaggable conversations, the system will also provide experts with more information on how sexual predators operate online—which will allow Microsoft to increase the accuracy of the system’s flagging mechanism.
And while, according to the company’s chief digital safety officer, Courtney Gregoire, Microsoft has only been utilizing these techniques for several years on its own products, including on Skype and its Xbox platform, it has invited further contribution and engagement from other technology companies and organizations with the goal to improve and refine the system further.
In order to know how to improve and refine the system though, we first need to talk about how it works—let’s dive in.
How Project Artemis works
So, then, how does Project Artemis actually work? Well, the truth is, we don’t really know. In fact, very few outside of Microsoft know, but that’s actually the key to the whole thing.
Because if Microsoft explains the precise words or patterns the tool hunts for, sexual predators could potentially adjust their behaviors to hide their activities and, essentially, rendering Project Artemis useless.
While the system still has some risks in that it might throw up false positives, since automated systems still struggle to understand the meaning and context of language, and in that it assumes that users permit their private communications to be read, Project Artemis has enough merit to make sexual predators think twice before they use online chat functions for exploiting children.
Thankfully, Microsoft and Project Artemis are not alone. We’ve written other articles on other technology companies like Apple, who has been fighting the disturbing increase of child exploitation imagery by screening images that are backed up to its storage service, and WhatsApp, who banned over 130,000 WhatsApp accounts in a 10-day period for violating its policies against child exploitation.
But technology companies shouldn’t be fighting alone—each of us can step up, too.
Why this matters
As Gregoire puts it, “Combating online child exploitation should and must be a universal call to action.”
While Project Artemis has proven itself effective, it is “by no means a panacea.” In other words, one online tool doesn’t solve the worldwide problem of online child sexual exploitation and abuse.
For some people, the sheer complexity and global nature of the issue would make them feel like they can’t make a real difference. But not Microsoft. The company has embraced a “multi-stakeholder model to combat online child exploitation that includes survivors and their advocates, government, tech companies and civil society working together.”
And we must do the same to stop and prevent online child exploitation once and for all.
To report an incident involving the possession, distribution, receipt, or production of child pornography, file a report on the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC)’s website at www.cybertipline.com, or call 1-800-843-5678.