A New Year wish for big data

Studies carried out into the life stories of men convicted of offences  linked to child abuse images, grooming  or even direct contact offending against children have shown there are no common characteristics which can reliably be said to act as markers  or predictors of such behaviours. One of the highly regrettable consequences of this state of affairs is that following any substantial police operation which results in the collection of a mass of digital data on perhaps many thousands of suspects, despite their protestations to the contrary, there is simply no rational way in which law enforcement can “target the most dangerous”or prioritise within the list that now makes up their newly acquired workload.

Yes they can take obvious and sensible steps like go after school teachers, priests, celebrities, people with prior convictions for child sex offences and the like. While that may have the advantage of also being politically smart it could be sub optimal. We just don’t know. Anyone on the list could be, right then, involved in abusing their own or other people’s children or be about to start.

Among other things this gap in our knowledge fuels knee-jerk calls to “employ more police officers”, the implied (false) promise being that this way we could catch them all. We can’t and we probably never have.

I am pretty sure that it would be no bad thing to have more police officers working in the online child protection space yet I am left with more than a nagging feeling that this is sort of missing the point. How many more? How many would be enough? My fear is that following the digital revolution calls to hire more cops are simply the last, desperate, if well meant, thrashings of analogue thinking.

Here’s the thing. There have, of course,  been some extremely useful studies which look into the kind of offender behaviour being discussed but these have all been relatively small scale and have had access to a limited amount of data. Moreover they have been heavily oriented towards the Anglophone nations so they have yet to gain widespread recognition or acceptance. My New Year’s wish?

Working internationally we should build the largest possible cohort of convicted offenders in each of the relevant categories. If for methodological or legal reasons we cannot engage with people who have already been convicted then we should put in hand arrangements to ensure that this works for persons convicted during the next 3- 5 years (or perhaps longer).

The aim should be to collect and analyze every digital device that was seized at the time of the convicted  person’s arrest and tie that in with all of their discoverable online activity. Maybe the offenders had accounts with Amazon, with Google, Microsoft, Facebook, WeChat, Twitter, whoever. There must be a way these companies can help out.

The project should be supervised by the likes of Julia Davidson, Ethel Quayle, Michael Seto, Julia Von Weiler and Michael Bourke  who should be locked away in a room with algorithmic maestros to see what patterns and correlations they can find. This would mark a major break with the more conventional or traditional forms of smaller-scale analyses which criminologists and the psychoanalytical professions have deployed hitherto.

There would be no spying or prying on citizens as a whole. I repeat: we would be looking only at the behaviour of convicted child sex offenders. The aim would be to help develop practical, highly automated trusted  tools that could be used by front line investigators across the world to assist with the rapid identification of the suspects requiring the most urgent attention. I think of it as an extension of what has already been achieved with, for example, Photo DNA which has enabled the rapid identification of  known abuse images.

In a previous blog I suggested a project like this could be commissioned by the Goddard Enquiry. Indeed there may be something useful Goddard could do  solely within the UK but having recently discussed this topic further with a colleague from the USA I can see that a broader canvas may be required. A Goddard in every country?