How police can embrace the cloud to fight child sexual abuse

On-premise technology is increasingly inadequate for handling the scale of material associated with these cases


By Johann Hofmann

Child sexual abuse (CSA) investigations and evidence are often hosted by law enforcement organizations using on-premise hardware. This is largely because of security concerns about the sensitive nature of the content involved in these crimes.

But over the last few years, the cloud has reached a level where its security is as strong as on-premise technology.

Facial recognition in practice when using tools utilized by CSA investigators.
Facial recognition in practice when using tools utilized by CSA investigators.

This article details why on-premise technology is increasingly inadequate for handling the scale of material associated with child sexual abuse investigations and summarizes the benefits cloud storage could have for law enforcement teams fighting CSA.

The 2020 online CSA landscape

We are amid an online child sexual abuse crisis that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children recently received 4.1 million reports of children being abused online in April 2020, in comparison to four times less, 1 million, in April 2019.

While global quarantine measures have facilitated a surge in CSA crime as, among other factors, perpetrators have more isolated time with their devices so there is more demand for this content, CSA perpetrators have used technology to commit their crimes as long as associated technologies have been around, especially the internet. But new advancements – including the cloud – have proven especially damaging because they have resulted in the acceleration of the proliferation of CSA material, with a single case today potentially containing millions of images and videos. This is challenging for investigators to comb through when searching for relevant evidence, as well as being physically and mentally exhausting for investigators, meaning cases take a long time to solve.

However, law enforcement is fighting hard to keep up with criminals and the evolution of modern technology is allowing police to sort through case material faster than ever to catch criminals and safeguard victims. Artificial intelligence (AI) in particular has automated much of the process for investigators with the ability to detect and identify critical evidence rapidly.

On-premise technology can no longer cope

Law enforcement continues to store sensitive data, such as CSA content, in on-premise storage solutions because this is assumed to be the safest storage option. However, the inflexibility of on-premise storage means that it struggles to cope with the immense volume of content investigators have to review in CSA cases, lacking the flexibility to scale to the needs of investigators. With a cloud solution, law enforcement can scale up the processing power at the click of a button, which would take time with on-premise hardware, potentially hindering an investigation.

Processing technology used on-premise also doesn’t have the power to make use of newly developed solutions to help police fight these crimes. For example, AI technology can be used to automatically sort all content to an investigator’s needs and specifications, flagging to what extent an image or video is relevant to a case such as alerting the investigator to material that is deemed to show a high likelihood of CSA crime. It can also group similar images, meaning that those investigating can quickly review all of the crucial and related evidence, drastically reducing the amount of data that needs to be viewed.

At the moment, bringing in new technology often includes the establishment of additional on-premise hardware, such as GPUs in the case of AI technology, which because of extensive policies and funding cycles can take time to implement. What this means is, by the time investigators get hold of the new tools, they could have evolved beyond recognition. This is disheartening for law enforcement who will see the criminals they’re trying to arrest making use of the latest technology to consume, store and produce CSA content, while they are having to rely on tools that are years behind.

The adoption of cloud technology could solve this problem, allowing police to adapt to new technologies in an agile manner while being more cost-effective in the process.

The benefit of the cloud for global law enforcement

The cloud enables law enforcement to have infinite storage space and processing power at a cost that reflects what is needed for the cases they’re working on.

To visualize this, say a new case comes in that requires 50TB of storage space; the department would be able to quickly ask their cloud provider for this space, as well as the amount of processing power needed to use the latest tools to most efficiently analyze the data. In essence, the cloud can move investigators away from doing any of the processing manually so that they can focus wholly on the investigative process.

This isn’t a distant future concept either, high-tech crime units in the UK are already testing the cloud successfully for this purpose and there are plans to also use it for cross-departmental collaboration. This would mean that instead of manually moving data into a shared system so that officers can check if the content has already been analyzed by another force, it could happen relatively instantly. This would be a huge step in improving the efficiency of cases, where even the current version of cross-department collaboration, albeit slow, is seen as one of the most important technological developments in the field.

But isn’t security the issue? Cloud service providers have recognized that law enforcement’s requirements (as well as other organizations that host incredibly sensitive data) are very different from ordinary organizations and have developed hyper-secure solutions that have undergone rigorous testing. When considering that some departments still use FedEx to share data (if they’re able to collaborate at all), cloud solutions specifically developed to handle contraband and sensitive information is no doubt the safer option in 2020.


About the author

Johann Hoffman is CEO at Griffeye, a company that provides a digital investigation platform for law enforcement investigation. Griffeye is used by over 4,000 police agencies worldwide for the processing, sorting and analyzing of large volumes of images and videos – especially in cases containing child sexual abuse material.

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