Artificial intelligence to make great strides in the fight against child pornography

  • The State of North Rhine-Westphalia, the Central Cybercrime Department of North Rhine-Westphalia (ZAC NRW), and Microsoft completed a research project on automated image recognition
  • The Open cloud platform sets good baseline for national and international use against child pornography

Images and videos of child abuse are becoming more widespread on the Internet. In 2020 alone, the number of suspected cases in Germany rose by more than 50 percent. At the same time, solving these cases is becoming more complex because a large amount of evidence must be evaluated in a short time. This is where artificial intelligence (AI) can optimize the process.

The Ministry of Justice of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, the Central Cybercrime Department of North Rhine-Westphalia (ZAC NRW) at the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Cologne, and Microsoft Germany have completed their research project: a legally secure and hybrid cloud solution for the automated detection and categorization of child pornography. During the testing phase, the solution was successful in the preservation of evidence. It was able to categorize images correctly in 92 percent of all cases. Once the practice tests are completed, there will be no more technical barriers standing in the way of regular operation. Thanks to its open architecture, the cloud-based solution can also be easily used in the future by national and international authorities.

Peter Biesenbach, Minister of Justice for the State of North Rhine-Westphalia: „The extent of criminal activity has increased considerably because of the Internet. Our project is a milestone for quickly evaluating child pornography. Of course, artificial intelligence cannot replace human investigators, but it will save us precious time. Time for further important investigative work. Time to speed up the processing of these cases which often deal with pre-trial custody And most importantly, time to solve ongoing crimes. Every minute won thanks to the AI-assisted evaluation of child pornography can help prevent ongoing child abuse more quickly. We must and will use every opportunity to end the unfathomable suffering of these children.“

Marianne Janik, CEO of Microsoft Germany, sees the project with NRW as a prime example for further partnerships and developments with government partners. „The successful completion of this complex development project is a blueprint for future collaboration between government and private partners. In practical use, the authorities benefit from a hybrid cloud solution that meets individual requirements, reduces the burden on existing infrastructures, and provides more computing power. The new solution gives law enforcement more time for actual investigative work and relieves the pressure of their psychologically demanding job.“

Hybrid cloud: more on-demand computing power without financial risks

With the automatic detection of child pornography, the project team presents a sophisticated technical approach based on the Microsoft Cloud and AI technologies: The hybrid cloud solution is specifically tailored to the needs of law enforcement agencies. Therefore, the AI can analyze the suspicious material both locally in the authorities‘ data centers (on-premises) and at Microsoft’s German data centers. This allows computing power to be increased at short notice and as needed, for example, to evaluate large volumes of data simultaneously. At the same time, Microsoft offers a hardware rental model for economically risk-free use: When not needed, the hardware can simply be returned without needing additional investment in the company’s own IT infrastructure.

Compliance with strict legal requirements is ensured by a specially developed abstraction algorithm that completely and irreversibly extracts and anonymizes (deconstructs) the image files. After the deconstruction, no real image content is recognizable to the human eye. This process takes place exclusively in the data centers of law enforcement agencies.

„We have provided strong proof that innovative technology can support investigators and that it is possible to use hybrid cloud solutions both legally and compliantly,“ says Head of ZAC NRW, Senior Public Prosecutor Markus Hartmann.

Graphic of the aira solution

High accuracy: AI’s recognition rate at 92 percent

An AI algorithm pre-sorts the deconstructed image files and classifies them into four categories: images showing criminal depictions of child- or teen abuse, images of permitted adult pornography, or any other images. In the project phase, the AI was able to categorize images correctly 92 percent of the time. If necessary, suspicious images can be prioritized and follow-up action can be taken.

In the event of incorrect results, investigators can manually flag images and assign the correct category. The advantage of the centralized solution is that all user assessments contribute to the constant retraining of the AI. The more feedback the system receives, the more the AI learns. This ”swarm intelligence” will further improve the quality of the model in the future.

In addition to classification, optical character recognition (OCR) can also be used to recognize printed or handwritten text on the images and automatically match it to predefined lists of keywords. This makes it possible to quickly evaluate watermarks that are frequently used by perpetrators. Another innovation is the evaluation of seized texts, such as chat histories. Here, AI can help filter extensive communications for passages relevant to the evidence, for example in investigations against suspects who have actively distributed or produced criminally relevant material.

Always up-to-date: cloud solutions do not expire

In addition to the existing capabilities, investigative authorities will benefit from further innovations, improvements, and enhancements to existing services in the long run. These are regularly provided via the cloud and immediately benefit all affiliated authorities. Janik: „Cloud solutions do not expire – they constantly remain state of the art.“

More information:

About Microsoft
Microsoft Deutschland GmbH was founded in 1983 as the German subsidiary of Microsoft Corporation (Redmond, U.S.A.). As the world’s leading manufacturer of productive software solutions and modern services in the age of intelligent cloud and intelligent edge, as well as a developer of innovative hardware, Microsoft sees itself as a partner to its customers to help them benefit from the digital transformation. As the world’s largest contributor of open-source technology, Microsoft drives progress through its leading developer platform GitHub. With LinkedIn, the world’s largest online career network, Microsoft promotes professional networking worldwide. Microsoft’s revenue is $143 billion (fiscal year 2020; June 30, 2020). The net profit in fiscal year 2020 was $44.3 billion. Microsoft Deutschland GmbH employs a total of more than 3,000 people. They work at the company headquarters (Munich Schwabing) and in nine other regional offices throughout Germany (Bad Homburg, Berlin, Eningen, Hamburg, Cologne, Munich, Stuttgart, and Walldorf). Together with around 30,000 partners, Microsoft supports companies of all sizes and in all industries in Germany. In addition, the company works together with partners in politics, economics and science on a wide range of initiatives and projects so that everyone can participate in the progress of a digital society.

Contact Microsoft
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Twitter: @isabel_richter

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