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FBI and NSA team up to fight deep web child exploitation

As important as it is, the announcement that Google and Microsoft are trying to stop searches for child pornography overshadows a perhaps more important endeavour in which UK and US law enforcement are going to go hunting on the deep web for predators. This is a welcome move and one that emphasises the need for Facebook protection for children.    

The fight against cyber porn has been ramped up several notches following the announcement that Google and Microsoft are targeting approximately 100,000 terms that can be used to search for child pornography. It’s clearly welcome and could lead to convictions in some countries where possessing images of child pornography is a criminal offence.  The feature is soon to be translated into 150 languages and it means that an avenue paedophiles use for accessing content will effectively be cut off.  The links that the search terms lead to will not appear in Google or Microsoft search results. It’s heartening to see the tech giants acknowledging the scale of the problem and taking a degree of responsibility. However, it’s natural to assume that the search engine ‘gatekeeper’ will simply drive many of these people who search for these images underground.  And an important question remains: just how many hardcore predators use these search engines anyway? Most use the anonymous deep web.

Cyber bunker dedicated to identifying predators on the deep web

That’s why it’s even more welcome to see that the US and UK law enforcement are joining forces to dive deeper into the dark web in the search for predators. At the time of writing this has not yet been announced but it’s believed that existing cooperation will be extended and the FBI will work more closely with the UK’s recently formed National Crime Agency (NCA). This is going to take the shape of technical experts in these areas locating, tracking and identifying predators on the deep web.  It is known, for example, that the NCA which also incorporates the Child Exploitation Online Protection unit has steadily been building up its cyber bunker technical team. The dark or deep web is so called because web sites are hosted in such a way that they are not accessible through the open internet and can’t be found by standard browsers.  It’s a favoured tool for those who distribute child pornography images and who want to keep their identities hidden. Their IP addresses are masked and servers have several layers of anonymising protection around them. Law enforcement can see what is going on but without a team of dedicated technical experts it has been extremely difficult to identify locations and users.

Searching for momentary slips

It will be interesting to see how this joint FBI/NCA initiative will go about its business, though they’ll surely not want to reveal state secrets.  Deep web users can make mistakes when they’re moving between the open internet and the deep web exposing their IP address for a matter of seconds. It’s likely that this is where exposure efforts will be concentrated as well as some form of entrapment. Many will say that it's about time the technology industry's considerable expertise was deployed against this nefarious trade. The Google initiative included 200 engineers, from Google-owned YouTube, working with Microsoft to create technology that identifies child pornography videos. This appears to build on a partnership that Microsoft helped establish in 2006 called the Technology Coalition in which something call PhotoDNA was developed to find images of child pornography by calculating the characteristics of an image.

UK government – it’s an ‘arms race’

Referring to the beefed up trans-Atlantic law enforcement cooperation a UK government spokeswoman said the move signalled a new step in the fight against predators.  Interestingly, she used the analogy of an arms race in which the opposing parties are always trying to outdo each other. The implication is that predators will try to find alternative methods of engaging in their disturbing practices.  Our own research has revealed that some of these people have deep technical expertise that is probably at least on par if not beyond the skills of those ranged against them. You could probably bet your house that lots of advice on how to combat surveillance is going to appear on predator web sites and in chat rooms across the deep web.

Facebook protection

The hardcore among these people are not going to go away simply because they are being targeted on the deep web and search engine links will no longer be displayed in search results. While these recent announcements are certainly laudable parents still need to practice Facebook protection for their kids. Using social media to lure children is a well known, long established and commonly used method. We’re just wondering whether Facebook is taking any steps to ramp up its protection for the young and vulnerable?


Written by Steve Bell

Steve has a background in IT and business journalism and has written extensively for both the UK national and trade press including The Guardian, Independent-on-Sunday, The Times, The Register, MicroScope and Computer Weekly. He's also worked for most of the world's largest IT companies producing content producing. He has a particular focus on IT security and has produced several magazines in this area.

More articles by Steve Bell

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