By combining computer science and criminology, researchers are developing a digital mapping software that will help guide police to sources of websites involved in internet crime related to the manipulation and/or coercion of minors into sexual activity.
Richard Frank, an assistant professor of criminology at SFU, became involved in the project when another researcher in the department pointed to the time consuming nature of manually tracking the social network of child exploitation. Frank saw the opportunity for a software that could do the work automatically.
The software he developed is a “web-crawler” that works by traveling through hyperlinks. To start the program, one manually enters a website involved in child exploitation. The program will then follow any suspicious hyperlinks found on the site that are not on safe domains.
Frank told Global News, “The problem is that it’s very, very easy to set up websites and webpages to take this content and put it on. If police or a service provider shuts it down, then [the offenders] create a new one and put it up again.”
Once on the site, the crawler looks for keywords and travels through image fingerprints to see if either exists in the police database. If the website is suspected of hosting content associated with child exploitation, the web-crawler will branch out again and continue traveling through the hyperlinks.
The team recently received a grant to continue their work from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA). In an interview with The Peak, Byron Holland, CIRA president and CEO, said, “SFU’s International Cybercrime Research Centre, and the project they proposed, is a prime candidate as an initiative to help advance the safety and security of the Internet in Canada, and fill a social and legal need that will have a significant impact across the country.”
Using this grant, the team is attempting to develop a geolocator to work with the software. The current software can efficiently track content being displayed but it cannot see who else is visiting a website or who runs it. With a geolocator, the software would be able to track the website’s source location.
Once the source is found, the police can uncover important information that the software cannot, such as who accessed the site.
Internet crime is still a relatively new and growing field in the technology age, but Frank believes this software could eventually be used to track down other harmful social networks. For now, the web-crawler should provide a needed helping hand to police on the hunt for exploitative cybercrime.