Law enforcement officials are bracing for an explosion of AI-generated material that realistically depicts children being sexually exploited, deepening the challenge of identifying victims and combating such abuse.
The concerns arise as Meta, a primary resource for authorities when flagging sexually explicit content, has made it harder to track criminals by encrypting its messaging service. The complication underscores the tricky balance tech companies must strike when weighing privacy rights against children’s safety. And the prospect of prosecuting that type of crime raises thorny questions about whether such images are illegal and what kind of recourse there may be for victims.
Congressional lawmakers have seized on some of those concerns to push for stronger safeguards, even summoning tech executives on Wednesday to testify about their protections for children. The fake, sexually explicit images of Taylor Swift, likely generated by AI, that flooded social media last week only highlighted the risks of such technology.
“The creation of sexually explicit images of children through the use of artificial intelligence is a particularly egregious form of online exploitation,” said Steve Grocki, chief of the Department of Justice’s child exploitation and obscenity section.
The ease of AI technology means that perpetrators can create dozens of images of children being sexually exploited or abused with the click of a button.
Simply entering a message produces realistic images, videos and text in minutes, generating new images of real children as well as explicit images of children who do not actually exist. These may include AI-generated material about raped babies and toddlers; Celebrity toddlers were sexually abused, according to a recent study. study from great britain; and routine class photographs, adapted so that all children are naked.
“The horror now before us is that someone can take an image of a child from social media, a high school page, or a sporting event, and can engage in what some have called ‘nudification,'” said Dr. Michael Bourke. , former chief psychologist for the U.S. Marshals Service who has worked on sex crimes involving children for decades. Using AI to alter photographs in this way is becoming more common, he said.
The images are indistinguishable from real ones, experts say, making it more difficult to identify a real victim from a fake one. “The investigations are much more challenging,” said Lt. Robin Richards, commander of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. “It takes time to do research, and then once we’re knee-deep in research, it’s AI, and then what do we do with this in the future?”
Understaffed and underfunded law enforcement agencies have already struggled to keep pace as rapid technological advances have allowed images of child sexual abuse to flourish at a staggering rate. Images and videos, enabled by smartphone cameras, the dark web, social media and messaging apps, bounce around the Internet.
Only a fraction of the material known to be criminal is investigated. John Pizzuro, director of Raven, a nonprofit that works with lawmakers and companies to fight the sexual exploitation of children, said that during a recent 90-day period, law enforcement officials had linked nearly 100,000 IP addresses across the country with child sexual abuse. material. (An IP address is a unique sequence of numbers assigned to each computer or smartphone connected to the Internet.) Of those, fewer than 700 were being investigated, he said, due to a chronic lack of funds dedicated to combating these crimes.
Although a 2008 federal law authorized $60 million to assist state and local law enforcement officials in investigating and prosecuting such crimes, Congress has never appropriated that much in any given year, said Pizzuro, a former commander who oversaw online child exploitation cases in New York. Sweater.
The use of artificial intelligence has complicated other aspects of tracking child sexual abuse. Known material is typically randomly assigned a string of numbers equivalent to a fingerprint, which is used to detect and remove illicit content. If known images and videos are modified, the material appears new and is no longer associated with the fingerprint.
Adding to those challenges is the fact that while the law requires technology companies to report illegal material if it is discovered, it does not require them to actively search for it.
The approach of technology companies may vary. Meta has been the authorities’ best partner when it comes to reporting sexually explicit material involving children.
In 2022, out of a total of 32 million tips To the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the federally designated clearinghouse for child sexual abuse material, Meta referred about 21 million.
But the company is encrypting its messaging platform to compete with other secure services that protect users’ content, essentially turning off the lights on researchers.
Jennifer Dunton, Raven’s legal counsel, warned of repercussions and said the decision could sharply limit the number of crimes authorities can track. “Now you have images that no one has ever seen, and now we’re not even looking for them,” she said.
Tom Tugendhat, Britain’s security minister, said the move would empower child predators around the world.
“Meta’s decision to implement end-to-end encryption without strong security features makes these images available to millions of people without fear of discovery,” Tugendhat said in a statement.
The social media giant said it would continue to provide tips about child sexual abuse material to authorities. “We are focused on finding and reporting this content, while working to prevent abuse in the first place,” said Meta spokesperson Alex Dziedzan.
Although there are only a few current cases involving AI-generated child sexual abuse material, that number is expected to grow exponentially and highlight novel and complex questions about whether existing federal and state laws are adequate to prosecute these crimes.
On the one hand, there is the question of how to treat materials entirely generated by AI.
In 2002, the Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on computer-generated images of child sexual abuse, finding that the law was written so broadly that it could also potentially limit political and artistic works. Alan Wilson, the South Carolina attorney general who headed a letter Congress urging lawmakers to act quickly, said in an interview that he anticipated the ruling would be tested as cases of AI-generated child sexual abuse material proliferated.
Various federal laws, including an obscenity statute, can be used to prosecute cases involving online child sexual abuse materials. Some states are studying how to criminalize such AI-generated content, including how to account for minors who produce such images and videos.
For Francesca Mani, a high school student in Westfield, New Jersey, the lack of legal repercussions for creating and sharing these types of AI-generated images is particularly serious.
In October, Francesca, then 14, discovered she was among the girls in her class. whose image had been manipulated and stripped of her clothing in what amounted to a naked image of her that she had not consented to, which was then circulated in online group chats.
Francesca went from angry to angry and empowered, her mother, Dorota Mani, said in a recent interview, adding that they were working with state and federal lawmakers to draft new laws that would make such fake nude images illegal. The incident is still under investigation, although at least one student was briefly suspended.
This month, Francesca spoke in Washington about his experience and called on Congress to pass a bill that would make sharing such material a federal crime.
“What happened to me when I was 14 could happen to anyone,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to have laws in place.”