AOL Wins Major Victory in Child Porn Case

Filed under: In The News

In a case involving a defendant who distributed child porn over the Internet, a federal appeals court ruled in AOL's favor, an enormous win for AOL and ISPs, according to Chris Bubb, the chief attorney who worked on the case. Below, Chris talks about the issues in this litigation, AOL's proprietary technology that detects illicit images and what the victory means for the company, ISPs and law enforcement.

What was the case all about?

US v Richardson was a criminal case out of North Carolina in which the defendant Richardson was caught by AOL attempting to send child pornography over our e-mail. As a part of a process we have in place, AOL reported the attempt to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which, in turn, referred the matter to law enforcement for prosecution. Richardson pled guilty to distributing child pornography, but reserved the right to appeal. The issue on appeal was whether the process used by AOL to screen for child pornography in e-mail and referred to NCMEC made AOL an agent of law enforcement and thereby violate the defendant's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. Richardson also challenged the constitutionality of the child pornography referral statute itself.

Does the ruling have an impact beyond AOL?

Yes. AOL has shared its detection technology with other ISPs and if the court had found that the process violated the individual's rights, it would have undermined the use of the process by any company. Moreover, if the statute had been ruled unconstitutional, it would have been a major setback for nationwide efforts to curb child pornography.

AOL uses its own special technology to intercept child porn – how does it work and who developed it?

AOL has a process called the Image Detection Filtering Process (IDFP) that establishes the digital fingerprint of every file that's uploaded to be sent in e-mail. Every time an e-mail is sent, the IDFP automatically generates a fingerprint of an attached or embedded file and compares it against the library of known image fingerprints. If there's an exact match, it's virtually certain that the matching file contains child pornography. The file and attendant identifying information is then automatically sent to NCMEC for possible referral to law enforcement. Criminal cases, like Richardson's, can result and the target can be prosecuted. The IDFP, which is really the linchpin of the case, was designed several years ago by John Ryan, who heads the Criminal Investigations team, and Don Colcolough, who testifies in trials for crimes related to the AOL-owned networks and services.

How much progress are ISPs and the government making in the battle against child porn?

The ongoing battle against child pornography is an ongoing struggle, but the IDFP technology is a major advance in the deployment of sophisticated technology to eliminate child pornography from AOL's network and to get the evidence into the hands of law enforcement. Because IDFP is automated, it's error free, efficient and reduces the number of times AOL employees have to deal with child pornography directly.

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