Understanding and Demystifying the Fight Against Child Sexual Exploitation

As social media and other tech increasingly employ default end-to-end encryption and other technical tools designed to protect the security and privacy of users, the Department of Justice and several members of Congress have raised the alarm bells, warning about the risks of “going dark.” Of particular concern: the ability to effectively identify, stop, and prosecute those engaged in child sexual exploitation.

This is, for many, a persuasive objection. After all, the use of default end-to-end encryption, particularly when coupled with other technological tools designed to protect the privacy and security of user data, makes it harder to collect certain types of evidence, including photos unlawfully disseminated online. Conversely, however, these same tools also provide key privacy and security benefits, including to potential victims of child sexual exploitation. As a result, the national debate on encryption often devolves into an almost-impossible-to-win argument about whether the benefits of default encryption outweigh the costs.

The goal of this project is to break the logjam and refocus the debate in a way that accommodates the multiple, competing interests. It acknowledges, yet sidesteps, the ongoing debate about whether and to what extent the move to default encryption is a net positive or net negative. Rather, it takes the shift as a given reality—and seeks to identify cooperative approaches to combating on-line child sexual exploitation that account for that reality. Specifically, it identifies and assesses the challenges in combatting child sexual exploitation, as well as the technological tools, partnerships, and other innovative approaches that tech companies and law enforcement can collectively employ to respond, even as default end-to-end encryption becomes the industry standard.

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