What can aeroplanes teach us?

The other day I was talking to the CEO of a tech company, expressing my frustration at the way scaremongering misinformation seems to have taken hold in relation to the way various child protection tools operate online.

We are talking about three types of tools:

PhotoDNA and similar detect known examples of child sex abuse material (csam). Every image in this category by definition is illegal and represents an egregious infringement of the right to privacy and human dignity of the child depicted.  

The second are so-called classifiers. These flag images which are likely to be csam.

The third address grooming behaviour, that is to say behaviour which is likely to lead to a child being sexually abused.

In essence the misinformation circulating about each of these tools implies or expressly states they “scan” all private communications thereby creating the impression that, duplicitously and hiding behind the name of child protection, the police or the security services, the companies themselves, and goodness knows who else, are reading everything you send or receive as a message. Or they could, if that took their fancy.

The simple truth is if any illegal reading or examination of messages is taking place it has nothing whatsoever to do with any of the child protection tools I have mentioned.

Howsoever or wheresoever it originated the miasma of falsehood enveloping the child protection tools is proving to be astonishingly tenacious. Why?

Like many conspiracy theories and other lies that get read and repeated over the internet, the smokescreen of misinformation has been able to take hold because it exploits an underlying lack of trust in or suspicion of “them”.  In this case “them” are some of the major actors in the drama: Big Tech, Governments, law enforcement and the security services.

But there is another set of actors playing an important role in this tragedy. I am referring to parts (stress parts) of the tech community and privacy activists who think each of the interests I listed are as bad as the others. Noblesse oblige they alone therefore have a self-proclaimed and claimed unique responsibility to look out for the rest of us.

Anyone who objects or takes a different view is pitied, marginalized or completely ignored because they obviously don’t understand the complexities of the issues. It’s a kind of techno evangelical paternalism. “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”

And those aeroplanes?

Back to my CEO. He compared the emergence of the internet with the emergence of international air travel. Aeroplanes were unquestionably a new and revolutionary technology that changed the world. Initially air travel was the preserve of a small, rich elite but as technology advanced and prices fell it became a global industry which in turn fed and helped create a whole number of others, not the least of which was tourism.

Then came a prolonged spate of terrorist hijackings. These destroyed consumer confidence in air safety. Tourism collapsed, planes were empty or did not fly. Relatively rapidly the world got together and agreed international standards and systems to make air travel safer. Did it stop all terrorist hijackings? No. But the new system of checks at airports self-evidently reduced the number of hijackings very substantially, and acted as a major reassurance to people waiting in line to catch a flight. Consumer confidence returned. Planes started going up again.

What was the magic ingredient that did the trick at airports and has now been extended to a great many public and other buildings around the world? Metal detectors.

Can they be fooled? Yes. Do they seem to work well enough? Yes. Does anyone feel their privacy is being invaded by having to pass their body or their bags through a detectorist arc or by having a wand passed over them? No. Can the wand or arc operatives see what, if any, underwear you have on? Can they make any other deductions or infer anything else from your movement, or your suitcase’s or briefcase’s movement, past or through the detector? No.

Yet that’s exactly how the child protection tools work. They look for something which says “metal is present take a closer look.” Nothing more. Nothing less. If the bleeper bleeps someone opens the potentially offending item. If no threats to children are found everything carries on as before and as intended. The idea that you only use a metal detector if a suspect comes into your building or your airport is absurd.

The challenge is how do we convince people that what I have described is the case? The even larger challenge is how do we create systems of accountability and transparency which will give all stakeholders – and here we must include parents and children- the confidence that that is all that is happening. Nothing more. Nothing less.

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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