Toronto cops enlist Microsoft in anti-child porn crusade

The Toronto Police Service is working with the world’s biggest software company’s Canadian division to help battle sexual exploitation of children.

The force’s sex-crimes unit is co-operating with Microsoft Canada with the hope of developing software, hardware systems and/or training that assists officers in identifying offenders and victims in child-sex crimes.


Paula Knight, Microsoft Canada’s director of community affairs, says an eight-member Microsoft team is currently in the “exploratory phase” with Toronto police but not yet working on specific technical solutions. Det.-Sgt. Paul Gillespie of Toronto’s sex-crimes unit says an area where police could use technical assistance is in identifying children in the child pornography they seize.

“We’ve seized over four million pictures and movies in the last two years in Toronto alone of really evil child pornography, involving well over 10,000 individual victims,” he says, adding almost none of these children have been found.

Gillespie says another goal of this new technology could be to reduce the amount of time of investigators have to spend looking at the material they find. Besides the fact officers’ time could be better spent on other things, he has concerns about the psychological impact.

“You can’t sit there as a normal person and look at 5,000 to 10,000 pictures a day for three months and expect to be normal,” he says.

Besides finding the victims, Gillespie says technological upgrades could help identify perpetrators who often have the audacity to include themselves in the child porn they create.

Also “on the table,” Gillespie says, are hopes for developing tools that would help catch sexual predators who lure children over the Internet, and track sources of child porn on the Web.

Knight says one way the company could help police is by educating them on the inner workings of Microsoft’s MSN online network, which features things such as Hotmail for e-mail and Messenger for instant chatting.

Alister Sutherland, director of software research for IDC Canada, says it can be a positive situation when police and technology companies team up in an attempt to create something. He says companies that make something helpful for police can find themselves quite sought after, but with police budgets being limited, it’s not a huge market to get involved it.

Gillespie says it’s too early to predict the success of this partnership. “I’m not sure this is going to be fruitful,” he says.

John Arnold, chief scientist for the Canadian Police Research Centre, says it’s common for police and high-tech firms to team up, but too often, nothing comes of it.

“There’s been a lot of cases of police organizations working with technology companies to get a particular product, and for various reasons, they don’t make it through till the end,” he says.

Some of the reasons he cites are the conservative nature of police to new technology, resistance from departments’ in-house IT departments and skepticism over whether smaller companies — often trying to make a name for themselves with police — will be around long enough to fix problems.

Knight says Microsoft Corp. is undertaking similar projects with police in the U.S. Toronto officers are expected to visit Microsoft’s central headquarters in Redmond, Wash. this month and get an update on some of these other cases.

Knight says it’s hoped that whatever is developed with the Toronto police can be packaged and sold to the rest of the world. But she adds this has more to do with contributing to society than trying to cash in on a business opportunity.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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