Liberal government looks to update fight against online child porn

As Ottawa revamps its strategy for fighting online child porn, an internal Public Safety memo touts tougher reporting requirements and artificial intelligence to help stem the rise in sexploitation. Better web-screening software would also relieve traumatized officers of the burden of searching for images.

Report says software could spare RCMP officers from trauma of search for online child sexploitation images

An internal memo for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale suggests artificial intelligence as one way to help fight online child porn. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

With online child sexploitation growing "exponentially," the Liberal government is looking at developing artificial intelligence (AI) programs to help relieve officers traumatized by scanning the web for gruesome images of child-porn.

Public Safety officials are also considering new legislation to require all communications providers — such as website owners, not just Internet Service Providers (ISPs) — to report child pornography when they spot it.

The proposed measures are outlined in a memo for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, which also calls for more resources for law enforcement, including better training for Crown counsel and judges.

The RCMP says a 2014 Supreme Court of Canada ruling, known as the Spencer decision, is impeding its child-porn investigations. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"Greater investments in technological tools and innovative approaches are needed to better allow industry and law enforcement to respond to the exponential growth in online CSE [child sexual exploitation] material, the growing use of the dark web, and ever-changing encryption methods," says the July 18  memo.

"This could include investments in artificial intelligence to improve the speed with which online CSE material is identified, and incentives for industry to put in place anti-online CSE measures."

"A greater reliance on technology to detect and categorize CSEM [child sexual exploitation material] would also have the benefit of decreasing officer exposure to this material, which can seriously impact personal health and well-being."

CBC News obtained a copy of the memo under the Access to Information Act.

Broad consultation

The document summarizes consultations with interested parties, including industry, prosecutors, police and others, on how to update a 2004 federal initiative. The National Strategy for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation on the Internet is currently funded at more than $15 million annually.

Much has changed since 2004, including:

  • The rise of "sexting" — the sharing sexually explicit images online.
  • "Sextortion" — coercing images from young people.
  • Live streaming of child sexual abuse.
  • Web services such as Snapchat, which can be abused to lure children.

The memo says the Spencer decision, a 2014 Supreme Court ruling that ended the ability of police to demand basic subscriber information from ISPs without a formal production order approved by a judge, has "impeded" child-porn investigations.

And it says investigators remain hampered by legal impediments preventing police from accessing password-protected information on laptops and other devices they seize from suspects.

Canada's tipline for child-porn cases has seen big increases in reports from the public. (CBC)

Further, the document notes the Criminal Code prevents industry, academics or non-government organizations from accessing or possessing CSE material that would help them create sophisticated software that can keep up with child-porn innovations.

"The inability to use CSE material in computer learning/artificial intelligence development limits the effectiveness of such technology in detecting and categorizing CSE material," says the memo.

"Addressing these issues would require legislative changes."

RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Harold Pfleiderer said the Mounties themselves do have the ability to access the unsavoury material for research, testing and development of artificial intelligence and computer-learning programs, often in partnership with outside groups in industry and elsewhere.

Most ISPs are taking at least 30 days to respond to these judicial orders.- RCMP spokesman Sgt. Harold Pfleiderer on delays in investigations into online child porn

He also confirmed that post-Spencer rules, requiring police to apply for judicially authorized production orders, have slowed down investigations "significantly."

"Most ISPs are taking at least 30 days to respond to these judicial orders and in some cases, much longer (60-90 days)," Pfleiderer said in an email.

The Mounties' Ottawa-based National Child Exploitation Co-ordination Centre has seen huge increases in tips and requests for assistance in recent years. In 2016-2017, the centre handled 33,256 such items, a 93 per cent rise over the previous year — partly a reflection of the massive global increase in child porn online as well as greater vigilance by the public and others.

At the same time, the centre has seen just two positions added to its ranks in the last five years, now with 55 staff, and its budget holding steady at about $6 million annually over the same period, said Pfleiderer.

Budget 2017 added $1 million

The Liberals' 2017 budget promised Public Safety an additional $1 million annually to fight online child sexploitation. Almost all that extra money is going to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection (formerly Child Find Manitoba) in Winnipeg, which runs cybertip.ca — a website that allows Canadians to report online child sexual exploitation images.

A spokesperson for Goodale declined to say when or in what ways the government plans to respond to the recommendations in the memo.

"Work is underway to modernize the National Strategy for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation," said press secretary Scott Bardsley.

"The Government of Canada is committed to keeping Canadians safe while respecting their rights and freedoms."

Bardsley also noted that Project Arachnid, developed through the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, is being improved to help industry purge more child-porn from websites.

The software "crawls" links on websites that have been previously reported to cybertip.ca, to identify child sexploitation images and, if found, to request the provider hosting the site to remove them. Bardsley said the project has resulted in about 700 removal notices to providers each day.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter


Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby


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