Supercomputer hunts child abusers
With the help of their 1.8 petaflop supercomputer, Jaguar, researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee are sifting through internet traffic in search of suspicions patterns that will lead police to the perpetrators of child pornography.
In standard police work, checking a suspect's hard drive will show whether they have been downloading illegal content such as child pornography. But catching the criminals that produce such material in the first place is even more important, because they can often lead police to the children who are being abused. It is far from easy, since you can't necessarily tell who took the illicit images stored on a hard drive.
"The problem with policing child pornography online is that there is simply too much of it," says Grier Weeks, executive director of the National Association to Protect Children. "We could quadruple our law enforcement dedicated to this problem overnight, and they'd still be overwhelmed," he says.
He approached the computer scientists at Oak Ridge in search of a solution. "They were genuinely stunned and moved by what they'd heard," he told New Scientist. "And within a week they were making a visit to the Knoxville Internet Crimes Against Children task force."
The lead investigator on the project at Oak Ridge, Robert Patton, has developed algorithms that analyse traffic, looking at the search terms people are using on peer-to-peer, file-sharing networks. Search terms that indicate someone is looking for child porn are flagged, and the algorithm watches to see how different IP addresses respond to the queries. In this way, the system points law enforcement agencies toward the computers that are posting new material on file-sharing networks.
"From a law enforcement perspective, you have to make a critical decision, 'How do I devote my resources to have the most impact?'" Patton says. "And that's where you really want to go after producers, because you're going to get the impact there. We want to be able to say "Hey, of all of the data you're looking at right now, here are a handful of IP addresses that you should investigate further."
The project will run for a year and has been allocated 1 million processor hours on Jaguar. "This is real science, there's a real scientific challenge here," says Grier. "This work is not just some charitable side project." For Patton, the program offers a more immediate return than traditional research projects: "For me that's the real reward. Hopefully, the work that I'm doing here will help save somebody's life."
by Frank Swain, New Scientist, December 3, 2010
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