With artificial intelligence against child pornography: “a question of resources”


It has never been easier to get hold of child pornography; But it is also becoming more and more dangerous for the perpetrators because of intensified investigations, as the prosecutors are getting better and better on them. Some federal states also want to accelerate the investigation with the help of artificial intelligence. 13 federal states have expressed interest in a Lower Saxony system, said the President of the Lower Saxony State Criminal Police Office, Friedo de Vries. Eight countries are already using the system. The aim is not only to prevent images of serious sexual abuse of children, but also cases of abuse.

Artificial intelligence is supposed to help uncover child pornography – how far have you come?

Friedo de Vries: We are very satisfied, even if we knew we were going to go a long way. At the beginning, the expectation was that everything would be very simple from now on – but we are still in the development phase. We knew we were not rolling out a one hundred percent instrument, but we’re at a point where we can roll out. The interest is great nationwide, 13 federal states are interested, eight federal states – including Lower Saxony – already have the software. Artificial intelligence already categorizes seized files, be it photos or videos, and differentiates between pornographic and non-pornographic. But pornographic does not automatically mean punishable. You have to look at it. And because we are in the development phase, a clerk also has to look at the pictures that are classified as non-pornographic. This is how we train our network.

Friedo de Vries, 56, has been President of the Lower Saxony State Criminal Police Office since 2018. Before that he was Police Vice President of the Osnabrück Police Department, and has worked as a police officer for the state of Lower Saxony since 1981.

Friedo de Vries, 56, has been President of the Lower Saxony State Criminal Police Office since 2018. Before that he was Police Vice President of the Osnabrück Police Department, and since 1981 he has been working as a police officer for the state of Lower Saxony.

(Image: Axel Hindemith, license CC BY-SA 3.0)

In how many places is the software in use in the country?

de Vries: We get feedback from 30 inspections in Lower Saxony, but also from other federal states. This is a completely different fund than before in the test laboratory, with which we can further develop the network. However, the assumption that a machine does not classify a single one of a million images incorrectly is somewhat unrealistic. Of course, a 100 percent hit rate would be desirable, but will the machine ever be able to do that? We are constantly developing.

Do you see a chance to get the problem of child pornography under control using artificial intelligence?

de Vries: Certainly not sexual violence against children. This requires more complex approaches. But it is the only option we have in dealing with the crime. We are seeing a huge increase in the distribution and possession of child pornography. The fact that young people in chat groups exchange pictures that have to be classified as pornographic may also have contributed to this. Most of all, sharing millions of images has become easy in the digital world. In the USA, there are agreements with network providers and search engines to pass child pornographic material on to the security authorities. This is how we come into possession of this data – via the BKA. The amount has increased exorbitantly in recent years, that was once 12,000, then 30,000, now there are over 100,000 references. The curve goes up steeply.

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So what are you doing

de Vries: We are streamlining our processes for evaluating the images. Artificial intelligence is the crucial point. Experience has shown that up to 75 percent of the images saved are irrelevant, these are holiday photos from the Eiffel Tower or the like. But with a quarter we say: They are criminally relevant. We can only become more successful and faster if we concentrate on this material in advance. The categorization is then difficult – also for artificial intelligence – is the person depicted already 14, is he 12 or 16? This is important for criminal liability. That is a special challenge, here the hit rate of the machine has to get even better.

Are you in danger of overlooking pictures?

de Vries: I think it is unrealistic to assume that we recognize and classify each of the millions of images correctly. Ultimately, you will have to accept that you may not have seen a picture. Even with the greatest care. The question of resources arises – in the end, the employees look at pictures for months in one process and evaluate them. The evaluation by humans is still undisputed and imperative, but we need the support of artificial intelligence for selection. I also want to steer our resources into the investigations in the corresponding forums and not just evaluate seized material. People who want to initiate sexual contact with children move on the net every day, even now. In this scene I want to prevent current abuse.

How do you intend to prevent abuse?

de Vries: The use of computer-generated images is now possible. We want to use this to arrest the anonymous perpetrators with undercover investigations. We want more to the perpetrators, who act actively, who are currently abusing children and causing them endless suffering. Against the background of the well-known cases of Lügde, Münster or Bergisch-Gladbach: There are people from close social circles – fathers, sometimes mothers, the uncle, acquaintances who have offered their children. Ultimately, it is also about the question of attitude. It’s not just an annoying “the other” topic. It is about the most serious crimes against the weakest, crimes against children.

What do you think of an increase in penalties?

de Vries: I expressly welcome the current discussion about increasing penalties. While this approach will not eliminate misery on its own, it does lead to a more mindful approach to society. And one thing is also clear: we as the police will not be able to solve the problem on our own. The increased attention will help to lighten the huge dark field of about 95 percent. The number of cases will continue to rise. Another argument why it will not work without the help of artificial intelligence.

How many people are involved in the complex?

de Vries: It is in the three-digit range in Lower Saxony. In 30 inspections in the country we have employees who take care of the complex. In the LKA we have a point of contact, processing and a coordinating function, and we have set up a group of experts to speed up the processes. It would be helpful if we had a platform for Lower Saxony – or at some point nationwide – where secured files can be stored and analyzed by the software.

Can you forecast how much the number of cases will increase in 2020?

de Vries: No, we don’t have a forecast for 2020 yet. But we have had extreme growth rates. From 2018 to 2019 we had an increase of 90 percent – only in Lower Saxony. And it will keep increasing. In the coming year, the Network Enforcement Act will take effect, then the providers in Germany will also be instructed to forward the data to the BKA.

Do you have to accompany the responsible police officers therapeutically? The work should be stressful.

de Vries: In terms of therapy, it is a tad too much, but there are offers from police chaplaincy or our advice centers. Case workers can talk in groups about things that bother them. However, we ensure that colleagues do this voluntarily and raise their hands if it becomes too much for them. Nobody is obliged to do this for years against his – or her – will.


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