Imagine an “army of spiders” crawling the internet through millions of websites at lightning speed.

Sound creepy?

stop child sexual abuse images

Well, yes and no!  What if the “army of spiders” was on a determined hunt to track and flag child sexual abuse material for destruction?

Sound impossible?

Then meet Project Arachnid – a software tool developed by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

In January 2017, Project Arachnid was released to detect images and videos of child sexual abuse using Microsoft’s Photo DNA technology.

Microsoft’s technology, free to qualifying organizations, assigns a unique signature – or fingerprint – to each illegal photo that will be searched on the Internet. It doesn’t matter if the photo has been altered, edited, resized or manipulated in any way because the “DNA” or fingerprint portion of the photo remains consistent in any format.

Once the army of spiders finds the illegal images, a notice is sent to the Internet host provider to remove them immediately.

A tech tool doing good

As part of Project Arachnid, Photo DNA is essential in the fight against child porn. According to the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit, “finding a child sexual abuse image out of the billions is like finding a needle in a haystack.” Without the right tools to track and identify the photos, there is no stopping the 1.8 billion child abuse images that are downloaded onto the Internet each day.

While Project Arachnid is Canadian-based, their scope and outreach are global in nature. Watch this video overview of Project Arachnid to learn more.

Sharp words for severe crimes

You may have noticed that we are not using the term “child pornography.” As the international police organization Interpol explains, “Children who have been sexually abused and photographed or filmed deserve to be protected and respected, and not have the seriousness of their abuse reduced by the use of terms such as ‘porn’. Child abuse images involve children who cannot and would not consent and who are victims of a crime.”

Using accurate terms such as “child sexual abuse images” recognizes the truth of these heinous acts that cause the suffering and exploitation of children.

A game-changer in fighting online exploitation

While Arachnid is not the first cyberweapon of its kind, its unique strength lies in the speed at which it travels the Internet.  In a test-run of just six weeks with various law enforcement agencies around the world, Project Arachnid achieved these amazing results:

  • Processed over 230 million web pages
  • Detected over 5.1 million unique web pages hosting child sexual abuse material
  • Detected over 40,000 unique images of child sexual abuse material

That was just the initial test run!  We asked Ernie Allen, Chairman of WePROTECT, and one of the funding partners of Arachnid, to give us an update on the project. Since its launch, Project Arachnid has already crawled 1.2 billion web pages to identify illegal material, and issued 339,000 take-down notices to content hosts for removal.

This snapshot is both encouraging and alarming! On the one hand, it shows how Project Arachnid is truly a game-changer in fighting online child exploitation. At the same time, it highlights the magnitude of the staggering amount of child sexual abuse that we are facing as a society.

According to Arachnid’s press release:

As far as we are aware, Project Arachnid is the only tool of its kind in the world that can accurately highlight the prevalence of child sexual abuse material on the Internet.

For survivors of child sexual abuse, this technology gives them new hope.

Breaking the cycle of abuse

According to Project Arachnid, the number one priority for their work is to help survivors. Because these images and videos of abuse can be spread widely, survivors are naturally fearful of being “exposed” in public by strangers who know them only from their online photos. Being identified leads to revictimization and more trauma.

The mission of Project Arachnid is to disrupt the cycle of abuse by finding the illegal images and taking steps to having them removed. This is especially important because victims had no control over the manufacture and distribution of their sexual abuse.

Arachnid’s work is based on the results of a 2016 International Survivors’ Survey. A key finding from the survey was that 70% of survivors have a real fear of being identified. Unfortunately, it isn’t an unfounded worry. In the survey, “30 respondents reported being identified by a person who had seen their child sexual abuse imagery.”

Survivor stories of any child sexual abuse are heartbreaking. Several months ago, Protect Young Minds reported on the modern-day slavery of minor children being lured into the sex trafficking industry. In many cases, the parents were doing all the right things. Arachnid breaks the psychological impact of being victimized again each time the images are viewed.

Get our free list of 11 Best Resources to Protect Kids from Sexual Abuse at the end of this post.

3 big online exploitation risks you need to know about

Project Arachnid is truly a breakthrough in reducing the distribution of child sexual abuse material. What lessons can we take away from new developments in cyberweapons?

First, the enormous numbers of child sexual abuse images discovered  tells us the magnitude of the problem. So we need to pay attention and know that as technologies evolve, so do the ways in which offenders can access and lure children.

Second, prevention is still key to reducing and containing the distribution of child sexual abuse images. Cybertip.ca, operated by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, and which also runs Project Arachnid, hones in on three main activities that are ripe for the risk of child exploitation:

1. Sextortion

Think of sextortion as a combination of sex + extortion.  In other words, it’s both unethical and illegal!

The FBI defines sextortion as a “serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them images of a sexual nature, sexual favors, or money.”

Sextortion usually involves an adult who is exploiting someone who is vulnerable. This is different than sexting which normally involves peer-to-peer sharing of explicit sexual words or images (which is certainly not advisable!) However, sexting can also lead to sextortion, particularly if a relationship sours and one individual decides to share the photos with others online.

The lesson here is that boundaries are key! Have ongoing conversations with your child about how to protect his or her boundaries – both her physical body and sharing personal information with others, especially online.

Related: Kids at growing risk of “sextortion” warns Department of Justice

2. LiveStreaming

Many YouTubers use livestreaming as a way to connect with their audience.  All you need is a webcam and Internet access. While livestreaming is considered a “real time” form of communication, many children are unaware that videos during a livestream session can be recorded by those who are watching. That makes your child vulnerable to being groomed and then victimized through sextortion.

Keep in mind that during a livestream session your child may not always see the real individual at the other end of the camera. Susie Hargreaves, Chief Executive of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), warns:

An offender may be, for example, a 40-year-old man. But by abusing a legitimate internet site to create a false profile, he could appear online as a 12-year- old school girl. Sadly, through this study we saw a range of grooming scenarios that abusers employ.

Certain livestream video apps, such as Cake, which are popular with teens, can also be riddled with pornography.  Be sure to know which apps your child is accessing, review the privacy settings with him, and from organizations such as Cybertip.ca regarding these programs.

3. Online Gaming

With chat features being a key part of many online games, one risk to your child includes being asked by another user to move to a private platform. The National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children recommends going through the privacy settings with your child – including how to block, mute, and report unwanted activity.

The easy way to talk about hard things like pornography with kids is to sit down and read a book together. Our Amazon best-selling picture book, Good Pictures Bad Pictures, is a great way to help kids have a plan to protect themselves.

“Have you wanted to talk to your kids about pornography, but didn’t know what to say?! I’ve felt that way for quite some time and finally found a solution – Good Pictures Bad Pictures. . . I highly recommend this book to all people with children. A must have for all parents!” – Amazon Review. CLICK HERE to learn more about Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today’s Young Kids.

3 ways to help your child stay safe online

Staying current with the top online risks is one way that parents can keep their children safe.  Even though it seems that the goal posts are constantly changing with technology, don’t be discouraged!  Here are three principle-based strategies to help your child, no matter what is happening in the tech world.

Stay connected to your child

This is the number one tip to help prevent your child from becoming a victim of sexual abuse. As parents, we hold the key to our kids’ hearts.  Our child needs to hear that we’re there to help, no matter what!

This means that we’re open to talking about difficult subjects, prioritizing their safety, and empowering them with solutions to online issues. When you have a strong relational bond of trust and love, then you can speak into their lives with conversations about risks and problems that they might face online.

You might be asking yourself: How do I help my kids talk to me about they are seeing or experiencing online, especially if they feel like they made a big mistake?

First, reassure your child that she can come to you about anything, at anytime, no matter how uncomfortable or embarrassing. Even if she broke the rules or did something impulsive!

Second, let her know that you will also check in with her regularly – and then follow through.

You might want to share something like this:

Sometimes some crazy things can pop up on the computer when you are online. This can be a video or photo that makes you uncomfortable. Sometimes, people can say things that are rude or threatening. They might persist in asking you uncomfortable questions. I just want you to know that if you see or read something like that, let me know. Has anything like that happened to you? Has anybody made your feel uncomfortable?

Some additional tips include the following:

  • Teach your kids to protect their personal information. This means never sharing their real name, location, school, phone number, or address.  They should use their “screen name” only.
  • Tell your child to never communicate with a stranger online, and to be on alert if a friend starts to act inappropriately online.
  • Tell your child to never respond to any threatening email, text, or post.  She should tell you immediately if she is being targeted like this.

Related: Overcoming shame: 4 tips for an emotionally safe home

Set rules

Supervision is key when it comes to the Internet. From the beginning, set the expectation that you will monitor your child’s use of devices. Depending on their age, that may include having their passwords and monitoring what sites they are visiting.

Just as technology like Project Arachnid is helping in the fight against exploitation of children; we can use technology in our homes to be part of our overall plan to prepare kids to be safe.

PC Magazine regularly reviews parental control and monitoring software. Check out their detailed editorial reviews for the pros and cons of the major software that are available to you.

Related: When should kids have cell phones? Savvy parents reveal best strategies

Know where to report problems

Those who document and distribute the abuse of children would love nothing more than to keep their activities going through intimidation, coercion and fear. But we can turn the tables on them!

If your child finds herself in an uncomfortable, confusing or even dangerous situation online, knowing where to get help is essential. For those who need to report child sexual abuse, including the possibility of a child’s image or photos being shared without consent, here are Canadian and American reporting hotlines.

Share this article!

Chances are, someone you know may need to see this article.  By helping to spread the word on Project Arachnid, and the work of proactive parenting resources like Protect Young Minds, we can help to end the cycle of child sexual abuse.

What can you do next? Get our free list of websites and books for parents and caregivers to protect kids from sexual abuse below!

Stacey Dittman, M.A.
Stacey Dittman lives north of Toronto with her husband and two sons. She holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature and a master's degree in Language and Professional Writing.
Stacey has used her writing and research skills in the government, non-profit and small business sectors. She is thrilled to be working with Protect Young Minds to help empower parents with the latest available information and resources. She enjoys hiking and playing tennis with her family and working with junior high kids in her sons' youth group.
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