A Childhood for Every Child

Posted by Ernie Allen
President & CEO, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

For most of us, the word “childhood” conjures up thoughts of innocence and security. But for thousands of children, it is shrouded by darkness and pain, because of the vilest kind of sexual abuse and exploitation. And when that abuse is recorded and shared online among pedophiles as child pornography, the abuse continues indefinitely; each time images of a child’s abuse are viewed and passed on, that child is victimized again.

We can help these children and prevent others from suffering their fate. Technology is a critical part of the solution, and that is why I’m proud to announce that Microsoft is donating to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) an important technology, called PhotoDNA,  to help power the fight against online child pornography. PhotoDNA was created by Microsoft Research and helps to calculate the distinct characteristics of a digital image in order to match it to other copies of that same image.

Child pornography worldwide, and particularly in the United States, has exploded with the advent of the Internet. Here at NCMEC, since 2003, we have reviewed and analyzed almost 30 million photos and videos of child pornography, and we project that nine million child pornography  photos and videos will be reviewed and analyzed in the coming year. As much as the Internet has improved our daily lives, it has also allowed people to access child pornography with limited risk of discovery, and encouraged pedophiles to build networks that validate and facilitate their depraved desires.

At NCMEC, we are devoted to ending all forms of child abuse and exploitation. To that end, our organization works closely with law enforcement and policymakers to strengthen protections for children. Technology, too, has played an integral role in our work, helping us to rescue abused and missing children and fight those using technology for such crimes.

PhotoDNA will revolutionize the work we’re doing in the fight against child pornography, allowing us to index the worst images, which we’ve confirmed to be depictions of actual child rape, by each image’s unique “DNA” or digital signature. Online service providers and others can use that DNA to better prevent these images from circulating. By “worst of the worst” I mean images of the physical sexual penetration of an identified prepubescent victim – truly horrific images of despicable crimes. Many of these images surface repeatedly during child pornography investigations as they are passed from pedophile to pedophile. Stopping their flow has been a challenge. PhotoDNA will enable members of the online service industry to voluntarily and proactively ensure that their services are not unwittingly hosting or distributing these photos of child sexual abuse.

Increasingly, child abusers are targeting younger and younger children, in part because very young children can’t tell anyone what’s happening to them. And because the average person will never see these horrifying photos, the victims have essentially become invisible. That is why we have to speak up for them. Law enforcement works heroically on this problem, but neither they nor technology can do it alone. We need increased awareness and broad-based support for policies that safeguard and protect children. We need to bring this issue into the open by reminding everyone that these children need our help, and that childhood should be a wonderful—not terrifying—experience for everyone.

What can you do to help?

First, help NCMEC and Microsoft raise awareness by participating in A Childhood for Every Child , our campaign to remind everyone what childhood should be about. Today and tomorrow, we are asking people to replace their Facebook, Twitter, Windows Live, MySpace, instant messenger or any other online profile photo and signature with the campaign logo, and share a story that speaks to you about what is best about being a kid. Whether it is a memory from your own childhood or that of your children, or a tale from a book or movie that made you smile, please update your profile or status, tweet, or blog to help us remind policy makers that we care about providing a childhood for every child.

Most importantly, help fight the problem of child sexual abuse and exploitation. If you see it, if you know about it, if you suspect it, report it to us by e-mail or call 1-800-THE-LOST.

I’d like to thank Microsoft Research, Professor Hany Farid at Dartmouth College who further developed PhotoDNA, the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit and everyone else involved in making PhotoDNA a reality.  I’d also like to thank each and every one of you for getting involved. Together, we can let these children know that they are not alone and that we are here to support them.