A game changer?

It’s not every day  of the week Winnipeg can advance a claim to be the centre of world attention. If it wasn’t for the small matter of that Inauguration thing going on a little way south of them maybe Winnipeg would have been, at any rate it should have been more in the spotlight of late.

Cybertip Canada is the hotline for reporting child abuse images in the land of the maple leaf. They are based in Winnipeg and have just launched Project Arachnid. Canadian law enforcement have been strongly supportive as has NCMEC. Quite simply Arachnid  is a web crawler that is linked to a  database of known child abuse images. The database is constructed using PhotoDNA.  Cybertip Canada sends Arachnid out to see if it can find any matches.

The IWF was the first hotline in the world to operationalize proactive searching for child abuse images on the web but with Arachnid Cybertip Canada have taken it to a whole new level. The early results are completely mind blowing. There has never been anything like it before. Not ever, at least not that has reached the public domain or my ears. And note this  – Arachnid can work with equal facility on the dark web and the open web.

In trials Cybertip Canada ran for six weeks prior to launch Arachnid processed over 230 million web pages, identified 5.1 million unique web pages hosting child sex abuse material and detected over 40,000 unique images of child sex abuse. Now read that again. They did all that in only six weeks.

Part of the beauty of the way Arachnid works is, having located a known image, it automatically identifies and notifies the hosting company asking them to delete it. All relevant information is passed on to law enforcement agencies. Where appropriate and where there is one the hotline in the country concerned is also notified and via this route, if through no other, I imagine the urls will find their way into the INHOPE  and other databases so they can be locally deployed.

Is there a police force anywhere in the world ready to deal with a potentially gigantic increase in information about web pages containing child abuse images? Almost certainly not but if Arachnid leads to a higher number of images being removed more swiftly than before that has to be a good thing. There is no doubt whatsoever that is what victims want. The police will have to catch up later.

Who knows, maybe what we learn from Arachnid about the volumes of child abuse images out there and the limitations imposed by current levels of police resources on law enforcement’s ability to address them will finally convince politicians who control the purse strings to cough up more spondulix?

Normally sober, steady individuals, not given to excessive exuberance believe this Canadian export has the potential to be a game changer.  It is likely to have profound implications for the way hotlines around the world work and relate to each other.

I’m told it is still relatively easy to locate child abuse images if you search in languages that do not use a latin script and, if that’s true, it will raise a question about how well all the tools currently in use are being integrated into some of the otherwise ostensibly global systems. But if it’s not true or we can find a way to fix it and integrate the results into Arachnid then 2017 suddenly starts to look a great deal brighter than the early portents were suggesting.


About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised. http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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