“Child sexual abuse photos and videos are among the most toxic materials online. It is against the law to view the imagery, and anybody who comes across it must report it to the federal authorities.
So how can tech companies, under pressure to remove the material, identify newly shared photos and videos without breaking the law? They use software — but first they have to train it, running repeated tests to help it accurately recognize illegal content.
Google has made progress, according to company officials, but its methods have not been made public. Facebook has, too, but there are still questions about whether it follows the letter of the law. Microsoft, which has struggled to keep known imagery off its search engine, Bing, is frustrated by the legal hurdles in identifying new imagery, a spokesman said.
The three tech giants are among the few companies with the resources to develop artificial intelligence systems to take on the challenge.
But that approach runs into a larger privacy debate involving the sexual abuse material: How closely should tech companies and the federal government work to shut it down? And what would prevent their cooperation from extending to other online activity?
Paul Ohm, a former prosecutor in the Justice Department’s computer crime and intellectual property section, said the laws governing child sexual abuse imagery were among the “fiercest criminal laws” on the books.
“Just the simple act of shipping the images from one A.I. researcher to another is going to implicate you in all kinds of federal crimes,” he said.”