Today marks a significant milestone in the ongoing fight against the abuse of Internet technology for the heinous sexual victimization of the most innocent in our society. As you may have read in the New York Times, Facebook is joining Microsoft in the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s PhotoDNA program to combat child pornography. NCMEC’s program, using image-matching technology created by Microsoft Research in collaboration with Dartmouth College, gives online service providers an effective tool to take more proactive action to stop the distribution of known images of child sexual abuse online.

Both Facebook and Ernie Allen, president and CEO of NCMEC, provided more information about the news and the growing problem of child exploitation online that inspired this effort on Facebook and the Microsoft on the Issues Blog, respectively. And we invite you to join the Facebook Live event at 3 p.m. ET on May 20th for a live discussion of this positive development in combating technology-facilitated crimes against children.

In partnership with NCMEC, Dartmouth College, Microsoft Research, Windows Live, Bing and many others, Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit has long worked to advance innovations and strong partnerships to combat child exploitation. In 2009, Microsoft, working with digital imaging expert Dr. Hany Farid of Dartmouth College, developed PhotoDNA and freely licensed it to NCMEC for use in a program to disrupt the online distribution of the worst known images of child pornography known to NCMEC.

Microsoft began implementing PhotoDNA technology in Bing and SkyDrive, including images posted to SkyDrive through Hotmail, in a thoughtful and gradual process in order to assess the capabilities of the technology and we are seeing strong results. PhotoDNA identified horrific images on our services that we would have never found otherwise. To date, we have evaluated more than two billion images on our services using the PhotoDNA signatures provided by NCMEC, leading to the identification of more than 1,000 matches on SkyDrive and 1,500 matches through Bing’s image search indexing.

A rate of zero false positives shows that the combination of technology and partnership with NCMEC delivers a powerful ability for responsible online service providers to surgically identify and disrupt the spread of known child pornography online. We expect the number of matches to rise over time as we continue to work with NCMEC to expand the deployment of PhotoDNA.

Facebook is the world’s largest social network and one of the largest photo-sharing services. Their participation in the PhotoDNA program will significantly expand the program’s impact. PhotoDNA has the power to quickly and accurately identify known child pornography images amongst Facebook’s billions of files shared online. In just one month, Facebook’s services host more than 30 billion pieces of shared content, including photos, Web links, news stories, blog posts and more. Identifying graphic child pornography in a sea of content like that is a daunting task, but PhotoDNA is helping to find the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Facebook’s bold step forward to become the first online service provider to join Microsoft in partnership with NCMEC on the PhotoDNA program sends a strong message: We will not tolerate the use of our services to victimize children in this way when we have the technology to do something about it. We hope that Facebook’s adoption of PhotoDNA serves as a springboard for other online service providers to take advantage of the opportunity available through NCMEC’s PhotoDNA program and, in fact, we know that others are exploring the possibility right now.

The distribution of child pornography is not limited to a single online service provider or platform. From early evaluation of PhotoDNA results we already know some important facts that support the need for broad adoption of this technology. For example:

· Many images remain on the Internet for a long time, years or even decades after the original abuse, and with each new viewing of that image, that child is re-victimized.

· Images originate from, and spread to, all parts of the globe. Even though NCMEC is a U.S.-based organization, we found image matches on our services stemming from abuse that has occurred across many countries, including the U.S., U.K. and Brazil among others.

· Some images become “popular” and are used time and time again – making good targets for the PhotoDNA program.

It takes a united effort across our industry to effectively confront the problem so child pornographers have no place to hide. Technology may have helped enable the growth of online child pornography, but technology can also be part of the solution.

I encourage everyone reading this to do their part to help. As a user of online services, be aware of and alert to the problem. No one should seek out child pornography (possession of child pornography is always illegal), but if you see any behavior online that you believe might exploit or harm a child, report it as abuse to the online service. And if you know about or suspect child abuse in any form, report it to the National Center’s CyberTipline.

You can help drive action and bring this issue out of the shadows and into the open. Child sexual abuse is hard to discuss, making it difficult to raise awareness about the desire to eliminate this problem from our society, and the child pornographers count on this silence to stay hidden and anonymous. We cannot let them win. We all need to be strong and visibly signal that large scale public demand does exist for the significant technological and financial investments that will make the Internet a dangerous place for child pornographers. Contact the providers of the online and social media services you use to tell them this is a priority for you and encourage them to join Microsoft and Facebook in NCMEC’s PhotoDNA program.

Let your elected officials know that you support them driving for strong global collaboration across industry, hotlines and law enforcement to enable the removal of these images from the Internet and the successful prosecution of these crimes. The PhotoDNA program is a purely voluntary effort and a great example of public-private partnerships addressing a complex, difficult issue.

Laws should provide the appropriate safe harbors for service providers that take proactive steps to identify and remove these images, but these steps should not be mandated – this must remain voluntary. Ask elected officials to fully fund robust law enforcement efforts at the global, federal, state and local levels. And, in the U.S., they should fully fund the PROTECT Act.

Most importantly, all policymakers and leaders have a great opportunity to use their bully pulpits to raise awareness around the problem of child exploitation online and create the necessary public demand for action that is essential for progress in this fight.

Stay informed. Join the Facebook Live event at 3 p.m. ET on May 20 for a live discussion about the problem of online child exploitation and for more information, please visit http://www.ncmec.org and http://www.microsoftphotodna.com.

Together we can and will make a difference.

Posted by Bill Harmon
Associate General Counsel, Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit