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Law enforcement agencies prepare for flood of AI-generated child sexual abuse images

Written by The Anand Market

Updated on:

Law enforcement officials are bracing for an explosion of AI-generated material that realistically depicts children being sexually exploited, making it even more difficult to identify victims and combat such abuse.

The concerns come as Meta, one of authorities’ main resources for reporting sexually explicit content, has made it harder to track criminals by encrypting its messaging service. This complication underscores the delicate balance tech companies must strike in weighing children’s privacy rights and safety. And the prospect of prosecuting this type of crime raises thorny questions: whether these images are illegal and what types of recourse victims can have.

Lawmakers in Congress have used some of those concerns to push for stronger safeguards, including summoning tech executives on Wednesday to testify about protecting children. Fake sexually explicit images of Taylor Swift, likely generated by AI, that flooded social media last week have only highlighted the risks of such technology.

“Creating sexually explicit images of children through the use of artificial intelligence is a particularly heinous form of online exploitation,” said Steve Grocki, head of the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the Ministry of Justice.

The simplicity of AI technology means that abusers can create huge numbers of images of children being sexually exploited or abused with a single click.

Simply enter a prompt to generate realistic images, videos and text in minutes, producing new images of real children as well as explicit images of children who don’t actually exist. These can include AI-generated material showing babies and young children being raped; famous young children victims of sexual abuse, according to a recent study in Great Britain; and routine classroom photos, adapted so that all children are naked.

“The horror we face today is that someone can take the image of a child on social media, on a high school page or at a sporting event, and can engage in to what some have called ‘nudification’,” said Dr Michael Bourke. , the former chief psychologist for the U.S. Marshals Service who has worked on child sex crimes for decades. Using AI to edit photos in this way is becoming more common, he said.

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The images are indistinguishable from real images, experts say, making it harder to identify a real victim from a fake one. “Investigations are much more difficult,” said Lt. Robin Richards, commander of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. “It takes time to investigate, and once we’re deep into the investigation, it’s AI, and then what do we do with that in the future? »

Law enforcement, understaffed and underfunded, has already struggled to keep pace as rapid technological advances have allowed images of child sexual abuse to grow at a surprising rate. Images and videos, made possible by smartphone cameras, the dark web, social media and messaging apps, ricochet across the Internet.

Only a fraction of documents known to be criminal are investigated. John Pizzuro, director of Raven, a nonprofit organization that works with lawmakers and businesses to combat child sexual exploitation, said that during a recent 90-day period, law enforcement The order had linked nearly 100,000 IP addresses across the country to child sexual abuse. material. (An IP address is a unique sequence of numbers assigned to every computer or smartphone connected to the Internet.) Of those, fewer than 700 were under investigation, he explained, due to a chronic lack of funding dedicated to the fight against these crimes.

Although a 2008 federal law authorized $60 million to help state and local law enforcement officials investigate and prosecute such crimes, Congress has never allocated that much money in any given year, said Mr. Pizzuro, a former commander who oversaw online child exploitation cases in New Brunswick. Jersey.

The use of artificial intelligence has complicated other aspects of tracking child sexual abuse. Typically, known material is randomly assigned a string of numbers that amounts to a digital fingerprint, used to detect and remove illegal content. If known images and videos are modified, the material appears new and is no longer associated with the digital fingerprint.

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Adding to these challenges is the fact that while the law requires tech companies to report illegal material if it is discovered, it does not require them to actively search for it.

The approach of technology companies can vary. Meta is the authorities’ best partner when it comes to reporting sexually explicit content involving children.

In 2022, out of a total of 32 million tips At the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the federally designated clearinghouse for child pornography, Meta spoke of about 21 million people.

But the company encrypts its messaging platform to compete with other secure services that protect user content, turning off investigators’ lights.

Jennifer Dunton, a legal consultant at Raven, warned of the repercussions, saying the decision could significantly limit the number of crimes authorities are able to track. “Now you have images that no one has ever seen, and now we’re not even looking for them,” she said.

Tom Tugendhat, Britain’s security minister, said the move would give more power to child predators around the world.

“Meta’s decision to implement end-to-end encryption without robust security features makes these images accessible to millions of people without fear of getting caught,” Tugendhat said in a statement.

The social media giant said it would continue to provide authorities with information about child pornography content. “We are focused on finding and reporting this content, while working to prevent abuse in the first place,” said Alex Dziedzan, Meta spokesperson.

Although there are currently only a small number of cases involving AI-generated child pornography, that number is expected to grow exponentially and highlight new and complex questions about whether federal and state laws existing laws are adequate to prosecute these crimes.

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On the one hand, there is the question of how to deal with materials generated entirely by AI.

In 2002, the Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on computer-generated images depicting child sexual abuse, finding that the law was written so broadly that it could potentially limit political and artistic works as well. Alan Wilson, the attorney general of South Carolina who sent a letter in Congress, urging lawmakers to act quickly, said in an interview that he anticipated the move would be tested as cases of AI-generated child sexual abuse proliferate.

Several federal laws, including an obscenity law, can be used to prosecute cases involving child pornography online. Some states are exploring how to criminalize AI-generated content, including how to account for minors who produce such images and videos.

For Francesca Mani, a high school student from Westfield, New Jersey, the lack of legal repercussions for creating and sharing such AI-generated images is particularly serious.

In October, Francesca, then 14 years old, discovered that she was one of the girls in her class. whose image has been manipulated and stripped of her clothes in what amounted to a nude image of her to which she had not consented, which was then circulated in online group chats.

Francesca went from anger to anger to power, her mother, Dorota Mani, said in a recent interview, adding that they were working with state and federal lawmakers to write new laws that would make it illegal these fake nude images. The incident remains under investigation, although at least one student was briefly suspended.

This month, Francesca spoke in Washington about his experience and called on Congress to pass a bill that would make sharing such documents a federal crime.

“What happened to me at 14 could happen to anyone,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important to have laws in place.”