Our work does not exist in isolation — we rely on strong relationships with a broad ecosystem of partners, all of whom share our dedication to defending children from sexual abuse. Our initiative to eliminate child sexual abuse material (child pornography) from the internet is only possible in collaboration with law enforcement, the tech industry, NGOs, donors, and most integrally, the survivor community. This month, our Scale of the Problem blog series will introduce you to the individuals who are working with Thorn to make this goal a reality.

Meet our Issue Partner: the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

We couldn’t find a better partner in protecting kids than the team at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). Michelle DeLaune is the Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at NCMEC and we’ve asked her to share insights on how technology has impacted the landscape of child sexual abuse material (CSAM).

New challenges to finding victims of child sexual abuse material (CSAM)

As technology has evolved, it has created very clear challenges, given the ease with which child sexual abuse images and videos can be produced, stored, and shared.

Twenty years ago, if an offender sexually victimized a child and wanted to take pictures of the abuse, he would use an early-version digital camera and physically transfer the pictures to the small hard drive on his computer. Then, if he wanted to share the pictures with other like-minded individuals, he would connect to the internet via a dial-up service and very, very slowly upload the files. Limited data storage, slow connection speeds and multiple steps limited this type of criminal activity to those offenders with some technical skills and a certain level of patience.

Juxtapose that with today. An offender who wants to photographically memorialize his sexual abuse of a child only needs to pull out his mobile phone, create a high-resolution image or video and, within a matter of seconds, share the sexually abusive images with other offenders around the world.

Certainly, the evolution of cameras and high-speed Internet are not the only obstacles to locating child sexual exploitation victims. In every way that we use technology to stay closer to our family and friends, abusers can use those same tools to find children to victimize.

Online connectivity has allowed child sex abusers to create communities dedicated to their sexual proclivities where they can share new child sexual abuse images and videos, support and encourage each other’s sexual abuse of children and ultimately normalize each other’s depravities. No longer operating in isolation, offenders share tips and tricks for finding new victims and ensuring their silence.

Over the years, NCMEC has analyzed more than 400 million child sexual abuse images and videos. Among the ever-increasing volume of child sexual abuse images and videos, it truly feels like we are looking for a needle in a haystack. However, in our world, the proverbial needle in the haystack is a victimized child who desperately needs help.

Technology is also a big part of the solution.

While child sex abusers continue to find ways to exploit children, new tech tools have been created to combat this horrible crime. Tools like Microsoft’s PhotoDNA have revolutionized the way we match visually similar photographs, identify newly created material and help determine “where in the world” are these child victims. We are supremely grateful for our many other technology partners including Google, Palantir and Intel who have helped NCMEC improve our business processes to better respond and adapt to an exponentially increasing workload. Most importantly, these technical solutions help us identify CyberTipline reports containing critical information that could likely stop the ongoing abuse of a child.

Child sexual exploitation is a complicated problem that demands a global, multi-stakeholder response. Protecting our children is not the responsibility of any one country, one agency or one industry. We need unified solutions involving non-governmental organizations, law enforcement, technology companies, educators, parents, as well as the voice and perspective of survivors.

As we have witnessed, online child predators find strength and support by banding together with like-minded individuals in their mutual desire to sexually exploit children. So, it’s only logical that “the good guys” join forces to disrupt and end their criminal acts. This is the spirit in which NCMEC partners with Thorn.

We’re stronger together than alone.

We’re thankful for partners, like Michelle and the team at NCMEC, who are working beside us on behalf of vulnerable kids.

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Updated post — originally posted on April 8, 2019.