The digital age has unlocked abundant new opportunities for the next generation. But with new technology comes new threats. Tom Whiddett takes a look at the all-consuming task of protecting children from digital harm
Can you imagine life without the internet? I certainly can’t.
We have a wealth of internet connected technologies and services available to us that make our lives easier – at work or at home. I certainly take it for granted to be able to quickly and easily spin up a virtual machine to process complex technical solutions, or know that I can stream my favourite TV series when I finish writing this blog. The fact is, in a world shaped by the Internet of Things, we can access online content at any time of day and from all around the world.
You’re most likely reading this blog on one of these devices, on your tablet or phone. Or maybe even your smartwatch, (please stop if you are). Don’t get me wrong – numerous advantages stem from having easy access to this wealth of information.
From the comfort of our homes we can challenge ourselves and our minds in ways we haven’t been able to do before. Young children now have access to so much technology, from apps and games to aid development, to streaming cartoons on YouTube. I think I would still prefer my Gameboy and Bop It, much to my parent’s dismay! But the concern is, what are they potentially being exposed to?
The fact that technology can offer weary parents a much needed break is, of course, something to be welcomed, but it also means that children are now more vulnerable. Unlike previous generations, children today are now open to cyber exploitation and attack from criminals and adversaries who have a rich tapestry of opportunities to choose from.
But this is where the UK's National Crime Agency's Child Exploitation and Online Protection (NCA-CEOP) unit comes in.
The NCA leads the UK’s fight to tackle online child sexual abuse. NCA officers with expert experience of prosecuting sex offenders work in partnership with UK law enforcement, the third sector, and private sector organisations to safeguard victims and prosecute offenders. NCA-CEOP has a small number of key partners that they work jointly with to tackle the threat, and BAE Systems Applied Intelligence is one of those key partners.
When a crime has been committed, the NCA’s teams use their specialist skills to identify the person or people responsible, working with regional police forces to bring them into the criminal justice system. Although the NCA helps thousands of children and young people every year, as well as their parents and carers, unfortunately there remains much to do.
Although I’m a data analyst by profession, I try not to rely too heavily on statistics alone but some top line figures show the scale of the problem. For example, there has been a 997 per cent increase in referrals to CEOP since 2012, and there were 113,948 referrals in 2018 alone. And with 99 per cent of 12-15 year olds going online, spending an average of twenty and a half hours a week on the internet, the risk of exploitation is clear for all to see.
The good news is that the NCA has succeeded in bringing together an international child protection community to develop methods and tools to protect children. While NCA officers focus on catching criminals and sharing their knowledge and insight about how to prevent, identify and report online child sexual abuse, the NCA's partner organisations can help provide the necessary resources to tap into the latest technologies – particularly helpful given law enforcement’s limited financial resources.
At BAE Systems, our pro-bono role is multi-dimensional, blending software engineering, data science and technical consulting into one. Day-to-day, we focus on helping operational staff with problems that can take significant man hours to accomplish. For example, one of the most valuable services we provide is writing custom web scrapers to pull down information relevant to an investigation.
Recently, we’ve also been focusing on data analysis and data science to crunch the numbers across multiple investigations and cases, linking and grouping them together. These have then been prioritised based on a number of factors, including the sites they have visited and if there are records of them posting, uploading and/or sharing child sexual exploitation material.
But such activities only hint at technology’s vast potential. At a recent week-long NCA event hosted by Interpol and the Home Office, we were able to develop new child protection tools using bleeding edge technology including various machine learning algorithms.
A good example of this was a development of an identifying features database. Officers often come across images that can be used to help identify a victim, so the concept was to speed up the process. Common features were extracted and stored in a flexible repository along with their identifying metadata. A web interface was then created to upload a cropped image, which would then return a number of similar images it thought could be possible matches, along with their identifying information.
Unfortunately, while such advances are undeniably exciting, the fact that they are needed at all underlines why the NCA’s role is only likely to grow in the months and years ahead. As technologies diversify and expand, so, too, will opportunities for those propelled by more nefarious motives.
Countering such ambitions is not for the faint hearted. It requires not only technical expertise but also eternal vigilance and a determination to protect children and young people from digital harm. When you think about it, few jobs are as important.
Helping transform the UK’s response to tackling child sexual abuse in the digital age
Technology offers huge new opportunities to the younger generation, but it also leaves them vulnerable to cyber exploitation and attackFind out more
About the author
Tom Whiddett is a Data Analyst and Technical Operations Support, CEOP, at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
Want to learn more about our work with CEOP?
Contact Dan Bailey, Account Manager, CEOP, at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence