Government funds new tech in the fight against online child abuse

  • Five winning projects in £555k competition exploring new ways to stop the spread of child abuse material in encrypted online communications
  • Safety Tech Challenge Fund will boost innovations in AI and other tech that can scan, detect and flag illegal child abuse imagery without breaking end-to-end encryption
  • Comes as the UK hosts G7 Summit calling for global collaboration on tech that makes the internet safer

The five projects - including tech companies in Edinburgh, Poole, St Albans and London - are the winners of the Safety Tech Challenge Fund, which aims to encourage the tech industry to find practical solutions to combat child sexual exploitation and abuse online, without impacting people’s rights to privacy and data protection in their communications.

The winners will each receive an initial £85,000 from the Fund, which is administered by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Home Office, to help them bring their technical proposals for new digital tools and applications to combat online child abuse to the market.

Projects include new AI plug-ins that can be run in the background of existing encrypted messaging services to identify images of child abuse and flag them to moderators. Others will use age estimation and facial recognition technology to scan for and detect child abuse images before they are uploaded. Another project will look specifically at how to prevent livestreaming of violence and child pornography.

The winners, who met with the Digital Minister Chris Philp yesterday to showcase their projects, will spend the next five months developing and evaluating their solutions. Additional funding of £130,000 will be made available to the strongest projects, bringing the total funding to £555,000.

The announcement comes as G7 and invited guest countries met virtually for the G7 Safety Tech Summit yesterday to discuss ways in which global partners can collaborate to promote continued innovation in safety tech and help to deliver safer online environments for people all over the world.

Digital Minister Chris Philp said:

It’s entirely possible for social media platforms to use end-to-end encryption without hampering efforts to stamp out child abuse. But they’ve failed to take action to address this problem so we are stepping in to help develop the solutions needed. It is not acceptable to deploy E2EE without ensuring that enforcement and child protection measures are still in place.

We’re pro-tech and pro-privacy but we won’t compromise on children’s safety. Through our pioneering Online Safety Bill, and in partnership with cutting-edge safety tech firms, we will make the online world a safer place for children.

End-to-end encryption (E2EE) is a technology which encrypts communication data - including messages, images and recordings - between sender and recipient to prevent third parties accessing them.

It is widely used across a range of services including banking but is particularly prevalent on messaging services such as Whatsapp and iMessage. It significantly impacts the ability of tech companies to protect children from being groomed for sexual abuse and help law enforcement track down and arrest criminals who share child sexual abuse material.

Based across the UK and Europe, and in partnership with leading UK universities, the winners of the Safety Tech Challenge Fund are:

Edinburgh-based Cyan Forensics and Crisp Thinking, in partnership with the University of Edinburgh and Internet Watch Foundation, will develop a plug-in to be integrated within encrypted social platforms. It will detect child sexual abuse material (CSAM) - by matching content against known illegal material.

SafeToNet and Anglia Ruskin University will develop a suite of live video-moderation AI technologies that can run on any smart device to prevent the filming of nudity, violence, pornography and CSAM in real-time, as it is being produced.

GalaxKey, based in St Albans, will work with Poole-based Image Analyser and Yoti, an age-assurance company, to develop software focusing on user privacy, detection and prevention of CSAM and predatory behavior, and age verification to detect child sexual abuse before it reaches an E2EE environment, preventing it from being uploaded and shared.

DragonflAI, based in Edinburgh, will also work with Yoti to combine their on-device nudity AI detection technology with age assurance technologies to spot new indecent images within E2EE environments.

T3K-Forensics are based in Austria and will work to implement their AI-based child sexual abuse detection technology on smartphones to detect newly created material, providing a toolkit that social platforms can integrate with their E2EE services.

The government’s forthcoming Online Safety Bill will transform how illegal and harmful online content is dealt with. It will place a new duty of care on social media and other online companies towards their UK users.

This will mean there will be less illegal content such as child sexual abuse and exploitation online and when it does appear it will be removed quicker. The duty of care will still apply to companies that choose to use end-to-end encryption.

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