According to Shehan, everything started to change back in 2004…that’s when U.S. companies began to fight the proliferation of child abuse images online using hash values – unique digital fingerprints assigned to pieces of data like images and videos – to find, remove and report child sexual abuse content located on their servers. With a list of “known” hash values, companies can voluntarily scan their systems so the content can be identified, reported and removed. Likewise, when NCMEC receives a report about a child sexual abuse image with a known hash value, it can quickly determine if the image has already been reported, and if the child in the image has been identified. That’s the first step in rescuing a child.
As technology advances, there will be more opportunities to help survivors. For example, NCMEC recently partnered with the Canadian Centre for Child Protection’s “Project Arachnid,” which takes known hash values of child sexual abuse content and scours the web looking for those images. Gone are the days when NCMEC could only find out about content posted on public websites when the CyberTipline received a report. We have entered a new age where systems can proactively go out and find the images and alert the hosting providers so they can take the content down.
The CyberTipline is more than a mere reporting mechanism. There’s a lot to be learned from the more than 28 million reports NCMEC has received in the past 20 years. The rise of trends like sexting and sextortion can clearly be seen in the data from the CyberTipline. That data helps inform NCMEC’s prevention programs and education materials.
“It is really fulfilling to see the CyberTipline report data being used for prevention,” said Rebecca Sternberg, who manages the CyberTipline. “The reality is most, if not all, children will be online. We must equip them with information about how to do that more safely and empower them with the awareness of how to take action and make a report to CyberTipline, if necessary.”
So what’s next for NCMEC’s exploited children division? According to Shehan and his team, it’s all about using the best technology out there to help manage the immense amount of data coming into the center…that’s hundreds of thousands of reports per week.
Another one of Shehan’s goals is to use technology to help sort through images and videos more efficiently so his staff isn’t looking at the same abuse images over and over again. He’s aware of the toll it takes on analysts to view these images, so reducing that exposure is a high priority.
“I think it takes a certain kind of person to be able to do this job,” said Sternberg. I focus on the positive aspects. I know I’m making a difference, even if it’s just that one report, that one family.”
“NCMEC takes the mental health of its employees very seriously,” said Shehan. “We offer on-site counseling to staff members, there are spouse and significant-other groups…there are lots of different ways we make sure the team members have access to the resources they deserve.”
One thing we know for sure is the volume of reports made to the CyberTipline isn’t decreasing. In fact, in 2014 the CyberTipline passed a major milestone – it received more than one million reports that year. Today – less than four years later - we’re averaging over a million reports per month.
“There are thousands of victims that would probably still be in really bad situations if the CyberTipline didn’t exist,” said Shehan. “I’m honored to be part of a team that every day is working hard to provide resources that contribute to the rescue of children in bad situations, reduce the amount of child sexual abuse material online and provide a vital service to the public to better protect themselves, their families and their communities.”
If you ever come across suspicious content online, please make a report to CyberTipline.org. Reporting categories include online enticement of children for sexual acts, extra-familial child sexual molestation, child pornography, child sex tourism, child sex trafficking, unsolicited obscene materials sent to a child, misleading domain names and misleading words or digital images on the internet.
Never hesitate to make a report. For more information, visit: http://www.missingkids.org/gethelpnow/cybertipline