Microsoft Employee Fights Child Exploitation

REDMOND, Wash. – Dec. 15, 2009 – Paula Knight’s life changed in 2003 after Bill Gates forwarded her an e-mail.

The note originally had come from Paul Gillespie, a Toronto police detective. At the time, Gillespie was leading a newly formed unit that battled child exploitation. He had recently seized a computer loaded with thousands of graphic images of child abuse, and he realized predators were using the Internet in new ways to find and exploit children. Law enforcement was falling behind the technology curve, Gillespie thought. So he wrote to Bill Gates and asked for Microsoft’s help.

Paula Knight’s life changed when a Toronto police detective opened her eyes to child exploitation. “I wondered how I could help, not just as a professional, but as a mother and as a human being,” she says.

Gates forwarded the e-mail to Microsoft Canada, where Knight worked as director of corporate citizenship. Knight didn’t know much about child exploitation at the time, she said, and what Gillespie described in the letter shook her. She decided to meet him and find out how Microsoft could help.

What Knight learned at that meeting changed her forever. She was three months pregnant with her first child, and she couldn’t comprehend how anything like what Gillespie described could happen to children. “That day changed my view of the world,” she said. “I wondered how I could help, not just as a professional, but as a mother and as a human being.”

Since that day, Knight has devoted much of herself, both on the job and off, to the fight against child exploitation. At Microsoft Canada, she helped drive the development of the Child Exploitation Tracking System (CETS), which was unveiled in 2005. CETS helps law enforcement agencies collaborate more effectively to track child pornographers. On her own time, in 2008 she founded the Mothers Online Movement, a community that advocates for the rights of victims and raises funds and awareness of the issue of online exploitation.

In recognition of her work, the Women’s Executive Network named Knight one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women for 2009. Knight said she was humbled by the award, and stressed that any attention should be paid to the children she tries to help. “The goal is to be a voice for these victims who have no voice,” she said.

A Shocking Image

Her journey started on the day she met Gillespie, who showed Knight a picture he carried in his wallet. It was of a young girl, maybe 3 or 4 years old, asleep in a bed. The girl was beautiful, Knight said, with a head full of curly blonde hair. When she asked Gillespie who the child was, he told her the photo was the only one in a series that didn’t show the girl being sexually abused. It was one of more than a million graphic images that are estimated to be online, he said, adding that to his knowledge few of the victims are ever rescued. “He told me he carried it to remind him of the job he had to do,” Knight said.

She was horrified, but despite the despair she felt, she started to think about how she could help at her own job. Microsoft Canada put together what Knight called a “dream team” that began work on CETS, which is now used by a number of law enforcement agencies around the world. CETS helps the agencies follow hundreds of leads at a time and eliminates duplicated work, making it easier for the agencies to collaborate and help build cases against suspected child pornographers, she said.

Knight said she’s proud of Microsoft’s commitment to helping exploited children. “As a company, we talk about the way in which technology can change the world. This is a great example of us doing something really important and using technology and the expertise of our employees to make an impact.”

Microsoft continues to use technology to make an impact. Today, Microsoft is donating new PhotoDNA software to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to help find and remove many of the worst images of child sexual exploitation from the Internet, said Samantha McManus, a communications manager for the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit.

PhotoDNA was developed by Microsoft Research to be able to calculate the distinct characteristics of a digital image in order to match it to another copy of that same image. Microsoft is donating this technology to NCMEC, which will use PhotoDNA to enhance its own operations and help online service providers better disrupt the spread of the worst images of child pornography known to NCMEC, McManus said. To that end, Microsoft and NCMEC are also encouraging the public to take action by participating in the “A Childhood for Every Child” campaign to raise broader awareness and support in the fight against child sexual exploitation.

In 2007, Knight began to think about doing something more personal after reading a story in the newspaper. In an Ontario town, a father had sexually abused his daughter and posted images online. “I felt sick to my stomach,” Knight said. She also felt like she wasn’t doing enough to help. She talked with Gillespie about the story, and realized her visceral reaction was the result of being a mother. She then realized thousands of others mothers would feel the same way.

A Community of ‘Moms’

That put in motion plans for the Mothers Online Movement (MOM), an “organic community of moms” who would advocate for the rights of victims, raise funds to help them heal, and increase awareness of online child exploitation. Launched in October 2008, MOM enlists mothers and their networks to lobby government for tougher regulation and raises money for clinical research and treatment that helps victims of abuse. Through word of mouth and leveraging its Web site and social networking as outreach, MOM just started its official fundraising strategy: bake sales dubbed Random Acts of Cupcakes.

Knight hopes to someday enlist a million moms to fight the millions of images exploiting children that are out on the Internet. She said she’s been overwhelmed by the support for the organization that has poured in from around the world. “It’s amazing that a small idea can become something big and powerful. When you’re dealing with a horrifying issue, you can’t ignore it. You have to find a way to do something to help. MOM is an example of how powerful we can be.”

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