Microsoft hosts tech industry hackathon to combat child online grooming

360 Cross-Industry Hackathon logo

On Nov. 7 and 8, Microsoft hosted an event to unveil and discuss new efforts led by the technology industry and others in combatting child sexual exploitation online. Co-sponsored by the WePROTECT Global Alliance in conjunction with the Child Dignity Alliance, the program titled, “Preventing online child grooming: Working together for maximum impact,” took place in Redmond, Washington, alongside Microsoft’s “360 Cross-Industry Hackathon” focused on tackling the same issue. Online grooming for sexual purposes takes place when someone builds an emotional connection with a child in order to gain the child’s trust for sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or trafficking.

I’d like to start by thanking colleagues, industry counterparts and co-collaborators for the time, energy, resources and effort they dedicated to this project over the past days, weeks and months that made the event possible. Microsoft employees from a variety of disciplines across the company’s consumer online services and corporate groups joined the effort. Facebook, Google, The Meet Group, Roblox, Snap and Twitter also contributed hackers and expertise. The U.K. Home Office, the WePROTECT Global Alliance, the Child Dignity Alliance and other participants shared their knowledge and perspective, as we all agreed to work together to continue to fight back against these heinous online ills. At Microsoft, we view the past two days as a catalyst for even greater collaboration moving forward.

UK Home Secretary addresses online child sexual exploitation

We were honored to have U.K. Home Secretary Sajid Javid join us and deliver the keynote address on the first day (a short recap video is posted on the Home Office’s Instagram and Facebook channels). The Home Secretary, who is making the eradication of online child sexual exploitation and abuse his signature issue, called on technology companies to continue to seek out and block illegal imagery, to work toward a solution to shut down livestreaming of child sexual abuse, and to stop child online grooming on all services. Javid noted that tackling child sexual abuse should be “a concern of every right-minded citizen” across the globe.

Other featured speakers included Julie Brill, Microsoft’s corporate vice president and deputy general counsel for privacy and regulatory affairs, who summarized our company’s long-standing work to detect and remove child sexual exploitation and abuse imagery (CSEAI) from our consumer services. Steve Grocki, chief of the child exploitation and obscenity section at the U.S. Department of Justice and a fellow WePROTECT board member, delivered a compelling update to the WePROTECT CSEAI threat assessment to include a focus on online enticement.

Dr. Hany Farid, a professor of computer science at Dartmouth College and the “father” of PhotoDNA, recounted the tech journey in addressing online CSEAI over the last decade. Farid reminded us that we face a formidable and highly motivated opponent in child sex abusers, who will continue to adjust to our disruptive techniques. “We must, therefore, continually and aggressively adapt,” Farid said.

The formal event concluded with a multi-stakeholder panel that shared its reactions and responses to the earlier presentations. The panel was moderated by Howard Taylor, director of the End Violence Against Children Fund, and included five participants: Einat Clarke of Facebook; Adam Hildreth from Crisp Thinking; Julie Inman Grant, Australia’s eSafety Commissioner; Tink Palmer from the U.K.-based Marie Collins Foundation; and John Shehan of the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

Wrapping up day one, the WePROTECT Global Alliance and the U.K. Home Office arranged additional side events to take place while the hackathon teams convened to examine the online grooming issue from three distinct, yet interrelated, perspectives.

Multi-faceted hackathon considers technical, legal and operational challenges

Three hackathon teams, made up of volunteers from seven technology companies, convened over two days to address key aspects of the larger goal: developing tools to detect online child grooming. The teams were technical and engineering; legal and policy; and operations and policy implementation.

The goal of the technical team was to create a working prototype that could surface potential instances of child online grooming based on certain interactions between a presumed adult and a minor in text chats. And, the hackathon team did just that: Dr. Farid led the engineering hack team, noting in the day two recap of their work that the team analyzed tens of thousands of conversations to understand the patterns used by predators. The team then built prototype technology that can automatically and accurately detect these patterns. The resulting prototype shows promise for further development into a tool that could be used to automatically flag conversations for additional review by experienced human moderators. While noting there is still more work to be done, the prototype lays the foundational work needed to create a piece of technology that can be licensed for free to resource-constrained smaller and medium-sized tech companies and deployed on their platforms to unearth potential instances of child online grooming.

Meanwhile, the legal hackathon team catalogued existing and potential statutory and regulatory impediments that are limiting technology companies’ abilities to protect their customers and the integrity of their services by utilizing detection algorithms. Indeed, as tech companies we need to be able to search with automated tools for illegal material, enforce our terms of use and rid our platforms and services of bad actors – all while balancing personal and public safety against other fundamental rights, such as user privacy. The team detailed case law, regulatory obstacles and demands from other content groups in a paper drafted and made available to event participants. The team expressed companies’ willingness to work with government and other stakeholders to bridge legal gaps.

Finally, the operations hackathon team took on one discreet issue: prioritizing reports of online child grooming for sexual purposes to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and having NCMEC, in turn, prioritize such potential child endangerment scenarios to law enforcement.

As the hack was taking place, the U.K. Home Secretary visited with the technical hackathon team, noting that the hackathon showcased the tech industry “at its best” as “innovative, collaborative and generating creative solutions that make a positive difference to people’s lives.” The Home Secretary and others said such multi-stakeholder, collaborative endeavors need to become routine.

Microsoft’s commitment to child online protection

As a 43-year-old technology company, Microsoft has a long-standing commitment to protecting children, and indeed all individuals, online. As part of this multifaceted and multi-stakeholder event, we re-state that commitment and stand ready to collaborate with any individual or group who shares our goal of meaningful progress and constructive engagement toward stamping out illegal material online. We also commit to working with others in industry and other disciplines to refine the promising prototype emerging from the hackathon, and to make it available to other industry players to help them detect and report potential instances of online child grooming for sexual purposes.

No one entity or organization can tackle these significant issues alone. It will take our collective, multi-pronged approaches, and we hope this week’s hackathon serves as a springboard for similar work going forward.

For more about the WePROTECT Global Alliance and the Child Dignity Alliance, visit those organizations’ websites. To learn more about Microsoft’s technological efforts to fight back against the online sexual abuse of children, see this webpage, and for information, tips and guidance about staying safer online, visit our website and resources page. For more regular news and information, connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

At the time of writing of this post, Jacqueline Beauchere’s title was Chief Online Safety Officer.