Fictional crime shows typically show a computer guru typing a few pieces of information into a database and, within a few clicks, they’ve got the suspect’s name, address, satellite footage, and they’re directing law enforcement on the ground.
“Just like that, the bad guy is caught before commercial break,” said Emily Vacher, director of trust and safety at Facebook. “It’s total fiction.”
New artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other tools being developed at Facebook could turn the tides for law enforcement.
The heartbreaking truth is that when it comes to finding missing or exploited children, the process can be slow and tedious, Vacher said. But new artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other tools being developed at Facebook could turn the tides for law enforcement, as they sift through the millions of reported cases, suspects, leads, and false alarms.
“We need to do this so that together we can build better technology that will make finding those precious haystack needles just that much easier,” Vacher said.
The prototype tools aren’t ready to be used, yet, but they would mimic what is shown on many of the crime dramas, she said.
Vacher was the keynote speaker at the Crimes Against Children Conference Monday morning at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Dallas. More than 4,000 people attended the conference from across the country.
Patty Wetterling knows the agony of waiting.
Her 11-year-old son Jacob was abducted near his Minnesota home in 1989. She gave an emotional speech about the affect this had on her marriage, her other three children, and everyone in her town.
“I remember being curled up in a ball saying ‘I can’t do this. It’s too hard. It hurts too much,’” Wetterling said. “And I would imagine Jacob curled up in a ball saying the same thing. ‘They’re never going to find me.’ I got out of bed, and sometimes that was as much as I could accomplish.”
“This room is full of Luke Skywalkers. All of us here have dedicated our lives to making sure that good triumphs over evil.”
Wetterling never gave up hope and followed several false leads over the ensuing decades. Only in recent years did police find the man who confessed to murdering Jacob Wetterling. He gave police the location and his body was recovered on Sept. 1, 2016.
Vacher credits everyone who works in law enforcement for making the world safer for children, referencing the hero from the original Star Wars trilogy.
“Why was Luke the new hope? Because he was the one who was expected to make sure that good triumphed over evil. This room is full of Luke Skywalkers,” Vacher said. “All of us here have dedicated our lives to making sure that good triumphs over evil. That we represent the glimmer of hope for the children and families out there who need our help.”
STOPPING REVENGE PORN
Vacher said Facebook and other tech companies, including Google and Twitter, are cracking down on child pornography, non-consensual pornography (revenge porn), and exploitation.
One of the biggest challenges that victims deal with is that the illegal images live on the internet forever, meaning they could pop up at any time and be seen by loved ones, friends, employers, or their own children, said Vacher.
AI could be used to find illegal photos, eliminate them and identify the perpetrator.
“This fear is more devastating than the physical and sexual abuse that she endured,” said Vacher, referring to one victim she interviewed.
Someday, AI could be used to find illegal photos, eliminate them, and identify the perpetrator.
There are scores of other instances where the ability to crunch big data in milliseconds would be invaluable.
Vacher recalls one case where she and other FBI investigators sifted through 10 years worth of school yearbooks looking for a missing child.
Technology they’re working on now could do the same search in seconds with pinpoint accuracy.
“That conflict between precision and speed is horrible,” Vacher said. “As we all know, the speed factor is so very critical to a successful outcome. Imagine if that critical time was saved on each and every case. The impact would be incredible.”
A HUGE FIGHT
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received 4.4 million reports of missing children in 2015. In 2016, it doubled to 8.2 million. So far this year, NCMEC has received an average of 31,000 reports a day and is on pace for 11 million.
The sheer number of missing children cases necessitate that technology be developed to speed up the process in an accurate manner.
“Despite the overwhelming volume of cases you work, despite the disturbing evidence you have to review, and the heartbreak when you sometimes can’t help a family reunite with their missing child you nevertheless keep hope alive,” Vacher said.
Photos by Chase Mardis
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