Using tech to combat child exploitation

It was an e-mail borne out of frustration, and its message could be summarized in a four-letter word: HELP.

The e-mail came from Detective Sergeant Paul Gillespie, head of the Toronto police force’s child exploitation section, and it detailed how the Internet was being used as a tool for child exploitation, victimizing children worldwide.

Gillespie asked if there was anything technology could do to help law enforcement agencies stop these crimes against children.

The e-mail was sent to Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates.

“I was just terribly frustrated. Law enforcement just didn’t seem to be able to respond to (online child exploitation) problem – we weren’t making a difference, we weren’t really arresting many people – while offenders were trading, sharing and storing hundreds of thousands of images. It just seemed like there was nothing we could do,” said Gillespie.

From Gates’s office, the e-mail made its way to Mississauga-based Microsoft Corp. and weeks later, a team of Microsoft experts began working with the Toronto Police and the RCMP to develop technology that would help law enforcement agencies fight online child exploitation.

Two years later the Child Exploitation Tracking System (CETS) was launched and to date, 20 Canadian law enforcement agencies across Canada are onboard with the tool.

Since its official launch early this year, Gillespie said there have been six arrests made as a result of sharing information through CETS. There are four more investigations underway.

Using Microsoft’s SharePoint technology, CETS creates a team site for each agency linked with the network where they could post information about their investigations, creating a centralized pool of database. The system establishes links pertaining to suspects’ online identities and other resources such as URLs and IP addresses that aid investigators in identifying victims and offenders, explained Garry Belair, technology manager for the RCMP’s National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre (NCECC).

The NCECC manages the CETS central database, which was officially launched last April.

“[CETS] is a very easy system to use and it allows [investigators] to share information that they did not have access to, in the past,” said Belair. Previously, investigators had no established method of sharing information across different jurisdictions and would often conduct independent investigations manually, even though they might unknowingly be working on the same case.

Belair said CETS is being rolled out in phases and would soon be entering the third stage, where twelve more agencies are expected to go online with CETS. The goal is to ultimately connect all agencies in Canada that deal with child exploitation and abuse, he said.

Microsoft allocated $4.5 million to the CETS project, which included the establishment of the Microsoft Centre for Excellence to assist interested agencies within Canada and around the world in deploying CETS, according the Paula Knight, director of citizenship, Microsoft Canada.

She said when Microsoft created this technology, it understood that online child exploitation is a borderless crime and the victims are from all over the world. “So we need to help [law enforcement] deal with the issue on that level.”

Since its establishment, the Centre of Excellence, based in Toronto, has been getting many inquiries about CETS from other countries. Knight said Microsoft has committed to continuously assist law enforcement agencies globally on the CETS project and to keep the technology as current as possible so it remains an effective tool for the police.

Canadian police forces have also been successful in coordinating with law enforcement units in other countries, the latest of which was a collaboration among the Toronto police, the FBI and Scotland Yard in London, UK. This led to an arrest of a Toronto-based child pornographer and molester early this year, said Gillespie.

“CETS was built as a federated model so other countries that take part will have their own system and in the future, our wish is to join up all these terminals and form a global child exploitation network,” he said.

He added “lengthy” discussions are currently underway with officials from the US and the UK to ultimately implement CETS in these countries.

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