Canadian police roll out child porn tracking system

TORONTO – A system for tracking online child pornographers that began with a Canadian police officer’s e-mail plea to Microsoft chairman Bill Gates may eventually be adopted by law enforcement agencies around the world.

Officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Toronto Police Service and executives from Microsoft Canada officially unveiled the Child Exploitation and Tracking System (CETS) on Thursday. The database, which was designed to assist police in tracking Internet predators and rescuing children, has already been successfully used in five Toronto-area investigations and has led to a number of arrests, officials said. Microsoft said it would complement its existing $2.5-million investment in the development of CETS with a $2-million donation that would create an office for supporting the system and training police to use it. CETS will be open to any law enforcement agency with a Child Exploitation division, who will access it via a Web-based application.

Toronto Police Service started working with Microsoft to develop CETS two years ago, after Det.-Sgt. Paul Gillespie of the force’s sex crimes unit sent a message to Gates asking for a system that would reduce the time it takes to sift through online child porn. Canadian police estimate there are more than 100,000 Web sites with child abuse images, and Toronto Police have seized more than two million pictures and videos.

CETS is not an image repository but a combination of database and case management system that will sift through officer’s notes, e-mail tips and other files to help police correlate leads on child pornographers. The system is based on Microsoft’s SQL Server product for the database and analytics, while the Web-based interface uses elements borrowed from Microsoft’s SharePoint portal technology, according to Microsoft Canada CETS project lead Frank Battison. The system will require less than a day of training, he added.

“It was a case of applying our .Net methodology to create a system that operates the way they operate,” he said, adding that the customized elements of the system include features developed out of Microsoft Research, though he refused to provide details. “We wanted something that was created by officers, for officers.”

RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli said CETS would be housed at the recently-opened National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre in Ottawa. Data fed into the system there will then be available to local police agencies, and he said it would be up to them to make the best use of the tool.

“It was front-line officers who drove this, who had the vision and asked for this,” he said, adding that he has already been in discussions with a senior member of Interpol about the promise of CETS. “He salivates at the thought of being able to provide this kind of tool to his agencies.”

Though a child porn tracking system is used by some agencies in Europe, CETS is the most sophisticated tool designed for this purpose so far, Zaccardelli said. Former Toronto police chief Julian Fantino said several other agencies, including the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, have shown an interest in using CETS. Battison said Microsoft knew there would be a possible need to integrate CETS with other, non-Microsoft systems, so it was developed based on Web services standards including Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP).

Fantino said the system would allow investigators to get through a lot more material than they do today, and that staff would be dedicated to handle the manual input of some of the data. “There might be a scene in a photograph showing abuse, and the system might be able to indicate other photographs that depict a similar scene,” he said. “It will identify the commonalities inherent in these kinds of crimes.”

Microsoft Canada president David Hemler said police might also use CETS to track other traces of Internet predators, including instant messaging “buddy lists,” and help flesh out the tips that often come into police with little information. Microsoft did not charge Canadian police to develop CETS, and will make it available free of charge to any law enforcement agency that wants to use it.

“There’s a goodwill image for us in doing this, but it’s also something we see as the right thing to do,” he said.

Earlier this year, Microsoft donated $100,000 to the University of Toronto’s Centre for Innovation Law and Policy for research into the legal and policy issues surrounding online safety for children, and to work with Ontario’s Attorney General office to develop new polices about using the Internet.

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