European forensic scientists have developed a state-of-the-art computer program to help track down child victims of sexual exploitation on the Internet.
Police tracing images
The prototype program, which took just a year to develop, can apparently discriminate between the faces of children, youths, and adults with great precision. Dr. Stefanie Ritz-Timme of the Institute for Forensic Medicine in Düsseldorf helped create the software and said it is the first of its kind.
Scientists and police hope to refine the software enough to be able to scan the massive amounts of image data that investigators routinely confiscate. The software would automatically filter out images of children from older people, thereby relieving police of having to do the job manually. The German Criminal Police Office is collaborating with the team of forensic scientists and anthropologists -- from Germany, Italy and Lithuania -- in the further development of the program. The European Union is also sponsoring the project with one million euros.
The program is fast to spot a child
Biometric scanner identifies facial features
The program currently requires just two minutes to classify an image of a face by age. When the software scans an image databank, it can weed out illegal child pornography from permitted adult pornography found on the Internet.
For the specialized software to work, facial patterns must first be "logged" into the program. The research team thus photographed the faces of 600 German, Italian and Lithuanian children and entered their facial characteristics into the program. The researchers intend to photograph another 1,650 children and young people to enhance the software's detection capabilities.
Different types of software help police trace victims
While the computer program's ability to pinpoint facial characteristics specific to children is new, computer software to hunt down child porn traffickers is not. In September 2005, the international criminal police organization Interpol announced it would launch a major campaign to identify child sex victims and prosecute abusers with the help of special software.
The software is supposed to minutely analyze pornographic material on the Internet and spot key background clues. According to Reuters news agency, Hamish McCulloch -- an Interpol official -- said police around the world would have access to the technology and image database.
"Currently, investigations tend to focus on trying to seize computers, forensically examine the hard drive and obtain the evidence to prosecute for possession or distribution (of child pornography)," McCulloch said.
Internet pornography is easily accessible
But the efforts are often in vain as many countries haven't pushed for identifying and prosecuting child sex abusers. Therefore, the focus must be on identifying the victims, McCulloch said.
"Once you've identified the victim, you've identified the abuser. The vast majority is identified through the victims," he said. Interpol has built up a databank of hundreds of thousands of images of child porn victims and as a result has managed to rescue at least several hundred children.
Analyzing crime scenes leads to finding victims
The specialized software, however, not only helps to identify victims, but also crime scenes. In one famous case, Interpol analyzed the photo of a young girl found on a computer in the United States and linked it to four pictures from Belgium. The software was able to determine that the four different children shown separately had been photographed in the same room because it had recognized the wallpaper pattern in the background. Investigators eventually traced the victims and found the abuser.
According to the international children's watchdog agency ECPAT, based in Bangkok, most child pornography is exchanged for free online. However, it has also sparked an underground business worth billions of dollars that distributes millions of images of child sex abuse.
Despite the new detection software, police are hard-pressed to keep up with other technological developments. Digital cameras, Web sites and e-mail make it easy for computer users to circulate any images they want.
ECPAT says half of the images of child abuse sold online come from the United States, and another quarter comes from Russia. The agency is calling for tougher laws that would require Internet providers to monitor for sexual photos of children.