Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Email Searches and Pedophiles

Email is not a secure way to send anything, much less child pornography, but not everybody has yet tuned into that reality. The belief that email is absolutely safe had a wonderful and disturbing reveal recently when one company helped catch a child pornographer.

Who actually believes that email is secure? I find it absolutely incredible but I'm, frankly, glad they caught this guy. All of us know that email doesn't go willy-nilly across some magically pure, uninterrupted field of wi-fi and arrives in the intended in-box without any detours. Excuse me, why do we have IP addresses? That's the equivalent of your home mail box and someone's server is collecting everything to re-route it to the appropriate hand-off and thence to your computer's lovely little hard drive. While they're at it, the servers just love to sniff all around and see what goodies there are to be gleaned for selling to some merchandiser or agent for something. You soon find this out when you see all those pop-ups appearing near the websites you visit.

Yes, my friends, we are under the watchful of lots of people and the NSA is only one of the ones about which we know now. But how did they track this predator? Good old fashion computer code writing genius supplied free by a company in Sweden that worked with Dartmouth College here in the US.  The Swedish company is NetClean and it created a program called PhotoDNA which it provided to Microsoft.

The software creates a signature for photos in emails or websites. The specific photos in question, known to be favorites of pedophiles who pass them around, are in a huge database of known child pornography images.  Suspected photos are then digitally checked for matches. To date, there are 65 million images in the database and the race is heating up because the nature of child porn is becoming increasingly violent and growing in the number of images of toddlers and infants.

You could say this type of software is similar to programs that are currently used in business for data mining or even in audio presentations to pick out selected sections of a report. But this is a use that can only serve a good purpose. Yes, I know, there are those of you who will say that it is an intrusion of our freedoms and that, even though it benefits children and protects them, it is still unwarranted invasion of privacy.

I suppose privacy is a risk we have to take here. Don't we take that risk each time we walk on any street in any major or minor city? Don't we also take that risk whenever we use our cell phones which are really little more than radios broadcasting to anyone who wants to listen in? What about the privacy risks we take when we go to the pharmacy and use our customer member card or a credit card? How about each time we are in our car and we approach an intersection with cameras? Do you honestly believe that you can even walk on a hiking trail and not have your privacy compromised in some way? Remember those wonderful satellites we've shot up into the sky for the past 60 years or so? Well, they're not all looking for weather reports to return to us.

Want to be invisible on the Internet? Sure there are programs that promise to help cloak your usage, but don't you think that just using one of those opens you up to yet more interest from government agencies? No, we don't live in Russia, but we are not free the way we'd all like to think we are. Every protection comes with a cost and we must weigh that in a thoughtful cost-benefit analysis.

I'm all for this software and I fully understand that slippery slope you're thinking about. But if we can save kids from these creeps, let's do it.