How technology can be used to protect vulnerable children

Veronica Martin caught up with Ashley Beck, Senior Industry Consultant – Global, Fraud & Security Intelligence Division at SAS, to discuss the most innovative technologies currently being used to investigate cases of child sexual exploitation, how they have improved the investigative process and how technology can be used to help victims of child sexual exploitation recover and heal from their experiences.

You have been part of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) Online Investigations. What are some of the most innovative technologies currently being used to investigate cases of child sexual exploitation, and how have they improved the investigative process?

This is something that’s really close to my heart. Once you deal with this type of criminality, you can’t go back. It’s something that lives with you forever, and you really want to help. You want to make sure that you are safeguarding children across the world, while also supporting the officers, who are doing an amazing job.

The digital footprint of evidence and intelligence that’s being left by such criminality is huge, not only from the data received but also the subsequent research of other data in external and internal repositories. Therefore, optimizing the exploitation of data using technologies such as AI, text analytics, machine learning, and automation is incredibly beneficial and can inject the ability to triage and investigate large volumes of reports.  I thought that when I moved to private sector from policing, I wouldn’t be surrounded by people who were equally passionate about supporting law enforcement agencies to save our communities.

However, I have found skilled, enthusiastic, caring individuals who would go over and above to support this cause.  This has created a perfect storm to innovate technology which produces tangible results and has founded ideas that will truly support officers to save children and vulnerable people across the world.  The work we are delivering in this space is revolutionary using the technology developed over 45 years and collating technologies for industries such as banking, insurance etc and transposed for the benefit of law enforcement where it can essentially save lives.

We have grown capability through skill, experience and determination to produce a system that can alert officers to risk elements contained in big data.  This approach can detect the potential of criminality within the data, but where we are taking this to a new level is being able to filter the data again to determine the probability of whether the criminality has/will/could occur. This can allow investigators to ‘see’ if a victim is in immediate danger.

What role can data science play in detecting patterns of child trafficking, and how can this information be used to protect vulnerable children?

We have data which is of proven cases of grooming exchanges between a number of suspects and ‘children’, over a period of 2 years and we have found trends buried within that data. The analysis showed a trend in terms of ‘gifting items’ to children to manipulate that relationship. In 2019, it was mobile phones that suspects were providing to children, but in 2021, we realized that it had moved on to gifting money. On finding this, we have to feed that back into communities and make sure preventative messaging is shared with children, parents and persons responsible for children.

We also reviewed profiles of the characteristics of children who have become victims. By understanding this, law enforcement agencies can direct messaging over mediums that can capture the audience and prevent these profiles from becoming victims. It is really insightful to see that these trends can be so easily extracted from volume data and make a real difference to protecting our children both online and in real life.

How can technology be used to help victims of child sexual exploitation recover and heal from their experiences?

As already said, authorities can publish preventative messaging through various mediums, which can then be viewed by victims of child sexual exploitation, and this can aid the healing process. Knowing that potentially these crimes are being prevented, stopping others from becoming victims in the future. Injecting analytics into detecting patterns can also direct support mechanisms to the areas where criminality is directing focus.

People who have been trafficked and victims of child sexual abuse can be motivated to speak about their experiences which is a crucial part of healing and prevention in society. The National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) contribute extensively to this important topic. There are a number of ways analytics can support organizations in understanding trends and share preventative messaging with parents and children in order to reduce the risk of someone falling victim to sextortion.

What advice would you give to policymakers and practitioners looking to use data science to protect vulnerable children, and what key considerations should they keep in mind?

It’s about transparency, integrity, accountability, and making sure that you are using technology that is explainable, that officers are comfortable with, and that is continually evolving. Law enforcement organisations can partner with a technology company that essentially enables the organization, the technology, and the police officers to grow and learn together collectively. Most importantly, we need to make sure that this is not just a textbook exercise; and that activities and implementation are really injecting public confidence and trust in the organization’s ability to deliver.

This way remaining ahead of the curve is achievable and allowing breathing space to remain proactive. There are a lot of positive byproducts that are evident from supporting police officers with automation, visualization, data extraction, and deconfliction of data. You can’t boil an ocean, but when you add a significant number of improvements and elevate capability, you end up with something really valuable, and the officers feel they can focus on investigating and safeguarding children and adults.



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