How AI became a key technology in finding missing and exploited children


The new superhero in the fight to find missing and exploited children is artificial intelligence. In 2016, there were 465,676 entries for missing children in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center. And in an effort to find missing children, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and Intel Corp. recently formed a new program, called Intel Inside, Safer Children Outside, to apply AI to the problem.

During the South by Southwest event held in Austin TX, an “AI for Good: Harnessing Power to Solve Problems” panel convened. Mark Gianturco, Ph.D., PMP, vice president and chief technology officer of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, participated in the discussion. NCMEC, founded in 1984 by John Walsh, host of “America’s Most Wanted” and his wife after the abduction and murder of their son, Adam, brings together law enforcement and technology to help find missing and exploited children.

“We have assisted in the recovery of 220,000 missing children in that time, and we are also involved in recovering exploited children,” said Gianturco. The nonprofit has five main programs, which include finding missing children and exploited children, family advocacy groups, and education for law enforcement and training groups to help prevent abduction.

The session, moderated by Lisa Thee, AI and analytics solution owner at Intel, covered how the technology industry is coming together using AI to uncover patterns by analyzing vast amounts of data to resolve missing children cases. Along with Gianturco, industry volunteers, Alison Yu, social media manager at Cloudera Inc.; Federico Gomez Suarez, senior technical program manager at Microsoft Corp. and advisory board member at Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children; and Nick Edmonds, software engineer and member of the Common Abuse Team at Google Inc., weighed in on their companies’ roles in the cause.

South by Southwest is being covered by theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s mobile live streaming studio. (*Disclosure below.)

Collaborating for kids

“This panel and who is sitting on this panel represents how tech and nonprofit can bind together to solve big massive issues, such as missing and exploited children, “said Yu, who mentioned that Cloudera also partners with Thorn and NCMEC.

While the group could not comment on the specific technology they use for security reasons, they did manage to discuss some use cases and some of the programs that are making a difference.

“As a collaborative group, we really have a vision of technology being part of the solution. Trends of mobile and social and cloud have really created a playing ground for some bad actors to really hijack our technology that was never intended for this purpose,” said Thee. She asked the panel to talk about some of the tools in use to solve the problem.

Gomez Suarez is a volunteer and technical adviser for Spotlight, a web-based tool by Thorn, used by more than 4,000 officers in 50 states. “We use an innovation aspect and research to understand the scope of this problem … by discovering solutions that can be used to empower people in the field,” he said.

According to Thorn, reports show that over the past year the organization is identifying, on average, five children per day and that law enforcement using Spotlight every day are seeing a 60 percent time savings in their process.

Gianturco pointed out that Gomez Suarez is helping to develop a tool that helps compare images of known missing children with other image sets.

“This is a good example of how we can use AI to help. AI [gives us] the advantage of the technology. Face recognition has been evolving so much in the past few years, but there are also special challenges the technology has. One is if the child has been missing for a couple of years, we need to account for that,” Gomez Suarez said.

First line of defense

“NCMEC is mandated by Congress as a clearinghouse for all national information on missing children and exploited children. … Some of the programs involve collecting information, providing analytics on that information and making sure it gets distributed to the right people to take action,” Gianturco explained.

There is an uptick in content and exploitative situations coming through their automated cyber tipline, he added. To illustrate the rapid climb of the issue, since the cyber tipline began in 1998, the organization has received 16 million reports. However, 15 million of those reports came in over the past four years. He asserted that the only way to respond to the increase in reporting is through automation and innovation.

Google also partners with the NCMEC to help find missing children and prevent child sexual exploitation. In his role at on the Google Child Safety Team, Edmonds described their mission as the opposite of the rest of the company.

“In this situation, instead of making the world’s information public and useful, we try to stamp out specific content that is harmful, damaging and victimizing children in this context,” he said.

Edmonds reviewed some of the legal changes that helped the company work with the cyber tipline. He spoke about how the legislation began in the 1980s and was no longer applicable in the digital domain. It took lobbying Congress and developing the legislative framework to enable Google’s collaboration in reporting data.

“Real-life abuse leaves digital footprints. Sometimes it even starts online, and the ability for us to find this abuse and pass it on to an agency that’s empowered to do the legwork … to reach out and affect change is crucial for us,” he said.

And while AI and machine learning are key technologies used to solve these crimes, Edmonds feels that these issues are serious problems with serious ramifications, so human beings are in the loop every step of the way.

For the Google Child Safety team, the satisfaction comes from turning over the data to NCMEC, which has the resources to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Watch the complete video interview below, and be sure to check out more of SiliconANGLE’s and theCUBE’s coverage of the South by Southwest (SXSW). (*Disclosure: Intel sponsors some SXSW segments on SiliconANGLE Media’s theCUBE. Neither Intel nor other sponsors have editorial control over content on theCUBE or SiliconANGLE.)

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