No Internet company or website operator wants to allow its platform to be used to distribute child sexual abuse material (CSAM). But especially for smaller operators, it has been difficult to access the resources needed to filter out this material quickly and automatically. In 2019, only a dozen of the largest tech companies were responsible for 99% of the abuse images reported to NCMEC (the federal government’s appointed clearinghouse for CSAM reporting). In the past year, this has begun to change as new systems have been brought online to bring CSAM filtering to a broader base of Internet platforms.
In this article we compare five CSAM-scanning solutions, two of which Prostasia Foundation has implemented on our own systems. We share our opinions on how accessible they are to a website of any size, how reliable they are at detecting abuse images accurately, how cost-effective each solution is to implement, and how configurable it is. Since none of these technologies are intended to be visible to a website’s users, this article is targeted mostly at website administrators and other technically knowledgeable readers.
Here’s how our analysis boils down:
The first two options are both variations of Microsoft’s proprietary PhotoDNA algorithm. As we have previously explained, PhotoDNA is a method of comparing image hashes—mathematically-derived representations of images. By scanning uploaded images against a database of hashes of known CSAM, any images that match can be automatically blocked or quarantined, and a report made to NCMEC.
What made PhotoDNA unique when it was first released in 2009 was that it allowed “fuzzy” matches for hashed images; in other words, if an image is mathematically similar to one that has already been identified by a hash, it can still be shown as a match. This is intended to defeat most attempts to disguise CSAM images by altering them slightly in an attempt to evade hash-based filtering.
But that’s only one piece of the puzzle that allows websites to scan for CSAM: the other piece is a databases of hashes of CSAM that has previously been identified. Since the original content cannot be derived from its hash, it is lawful to store image hashes of CSAM images for use in scanning newly-uploaded images for comparison against the hash. Therefore NCMEC maintains several databases of image hashes that are made available to major participating platforms. Its principal CyberTipline database is composed of images that NCMEC has assessed as being CSAM, and has reported to law enforcement.
Because access to the original hash databases is considered sensitive, NCMEC will not provide these to smaller platforms. Neither will Microsoft provide the source code of its PhotoDNA algorithm except to its most trusted partners, because if the algorithm became widely known, it is thought that this might enable abusers to bypass it. The secrecy of these two elements of the system explains why two separate PhotoDNA products are listed in our product review.
The PhotoDNA cloud service is the variant that most Internet platforms can gain access to, as a web service provided through Microsoft’s Azure platform. This hides the algorithm itself, and the image hashes databases, behind an API (application programming interface), so that rather than scanning the images on its own system, a website operator must upload them to Microsoft for scanning. The PhotoDNA cloud system will report back to the website whether there is a match.
The main limitations on the PhotoDNA cloud service are inherent in the distributed nature of this system: it slows scanning down because of the necessity for images to be sent to Microsoft’s server and scanned. This also reduces the privacy of the system; although Microsoft undertakes not to keep copies of images, there is the possibility that images sent for scanning might be intercepted.
The cloud service does however have an experimental “edge match” API that allows hashes to be generated on the client-side, and those hashes sent to the Microsoft server in place of the original images. This offers better privacy protection as against a solution that involves sending original images. (Somewhat confusingly, these hashes are not PhotoDNA hashes, but an intermediate hash format, so that the confidentiality of the PhotoDNA hashing algorithm can still be preserved.)
Compared with the cloud service, using the PhotoDNA algorithm and hash databases directly would allow a large platform to scan images more quickly, and to configure how they are scanned in ways that the cloud service doesn’t permit—most notably, by configuring the level of “fuzziness” that is allowed in a match.
The cloud service doesn’t permit this to be adjusted, and from our testing, it appears that either the level of allowed fuzziness is set very low, or that the algorithm doesn’t function very well with the low-resolution test images that Microsoft supplies. We deduce this from the fact that almost any of the deformations that we attempted during our implementation of the system for MAP Support Club—including format shifting, cropping, padding, rotating, or watermarking the test images—resulted in a failed match. Oddly, these are exactly the sort of deformations that PhotoDNA is meant to be resilient against.
Despite this limitation, Microsoft does allow other configurations to be made by cloud service users. It allows the operator to enable image hash databases from any one or more of the following sources: Canadian industry, U.S. industry, Cybertip.ca, and NCMEC. The severity of abuse images included can also be selected: either sex acts only, or sex acts and “lascivious exhibition” (erotic posing), showing either pre-pubescent or pubescent child victims. There is no particular reason why most platforms would not want to enable scanning for images in all of these categories.
Due to the inability to configure the fuzziness of hash matching, we rated the PhotoDNA cloud service as being both less reliable and less configurable than a system that uses the PhotoDNA algorithm directly. However we rated the PhotoDNA cloud service as being more accessible and cost-effective, because of the convenient API interface that Microsoft provides to access it. Once approved, access to the system is also free of charge. In comparison, as noted above, access to the original PhotoDNA algorithm is tightly controlled, and the costs of integrating it with a website’s internal systems would be considerably higher.
Due to the prevalence of newly self-created images, including sexting images taken and uploaded by teens themselves, scanning for existing CSAM hashes is not a complete solution to prevent CSAM images from appearing online. Thus under heavy pressure from governments to “do more,” the larger platforms have also recently been rolling out AI tools to detect new suspected CSAM images.
Google released its AI tool called Content Safety API in 2018, making it available to other groups on application. Prostasia Foundation applied for access to this tool, but Google declined our request saying that “we believe the Content Safety API may not be a good match for your needs.” The first generally-available commercial product that claims to be able to detect new CSAM images using machine learning is Thorn’s Safer. Although we haven’t been given access to Safer either, we have chosen to make a tentative assessment of it on the basis of publicly available information.
Safer is a hybrid product which combines hash-based scanning with machine learning classification algorithms. Details of how this technology has been trained and how accurately it detects CSAM are sparse, but we do know that Safer’s machine learning has been trained on adult pornography, and that Safer users can contribute directly to the system’s shared image database, without these additions being evaluated by trained assessors.
We also know in general terms that machine learning algorithms for image recognition tend to be both flawed overall, and biased against minorities specifically. In October 2020, it was reported that Facebook’s nudity-detection AI reported a picture of onions for takedown. It may be that for largest platforms, AI algorithms can assist human moderators to triage likely-infringing images. But they should never be relied upon without human review, and for smaller platforms they are likely to be more trouble than they are worth.
Although Thorn claims that Safer can detect new CSAM images with greater than 99% accuracy, we have strong reason to be skeptical of this claim in the absence of an independent public evaluation of its effectiveness. We perhaps wouldn’t be so skeptical if Thorn hadn’t played fast and loose with statistics in the past. As at the date of this article, it continues to claim that it used its AI technology to identity over 5,500 child sex trafficking victims in a single year—yet the most accurate sex trafficking statistics that we have reveal this claim to be of dubious accuracy.
In order to properly evaluate the accuracy of Safer’s AI subsystem, we contacted Thorn twice to request more information about their product. Because we received no response to these repeated enquiries, Thorn lost a star for the accessibility of its product, and we have also given it a conservative rating for how accurate it is, knowing some of its limitations. As a cloud-hosted product, it is rated equally as configurable as the other products of this type. We will update these ratings once we are able to learn more about the product.
Another factor on which Thorn scored poorly for Safer was affordability. That’s because although it received a multi-million dollar grant to help develop Safer as a “solution” to child sexual abuse online, it is charging a hefty fee to end users. This ranges from $26,688 all the way up to $118,125 per year in licensing fees, depending on how many images are to be scanned. This takes Safer way outside of the realm of affordability for many smaller web platforms. These considerations combine to leave Safer with our lowest overall rating.
In our inaugural Hall of Fame this year, we explained why the introduction of Cloudflare’s CSAM Scanning Tool in December 2019 was so revolutionary. To be effective, CSAM scanning must include the broadest possible range of websites, not just those of the tech giants. Less than 1% of illegal child abuse content is found on social media platforms, according to the Internet Watch Foundation (the IWF; another Hall of Fame inductee). Therefore whatever Facebook or Twitter could do to curb the problem would not be nearly significant enough.
But what Cloudflare could do is significant. If enough of its members turned on this one simple setting, about 14.5% of all websites could protect themselves and their users from participating in the spread of known CSAM, without any cost, and without the need for any programming knowledge at all. Much of the CSAM that is posted to the open web by users is found on “chan-style” imageboard websites, whose operators typically don’t have the technical skills to implement PhotoDNA scanning, nor the money to license Safer… but they are often Cloudflare users.
Cloudflare’s CSAM Scanning Tool is by far the simplest tool for this purpose, that is accessible to any website. On the other hand, at the cost of this simplicity comes some lack of control. Compared with the licensed Microsoft PhotoDNA cloud service, Cloudflare allows only one setting to be configured: whether the “NCMEC NGO” and/or the “NCMEC industry” hash lists are to be consulted. The severity of the images is not configurable—although we don’t regard this as a major flaw—and neither is the degree of fuzziness.
Another difficulty we encountered is that we haven’t been able to test the Cloudflare CSAM scanner, as it does not come with any test images, and the PhotoDNA cloud service test images do not trigger a match. However we can at least confirm that with both hash lists selected, the filter doesn’t appear to be obviously overbroad. We have tested it with a variety of legal images, none of which triggered a match. While we still have major concerns about NCMEC’s transparency, these hash lists appear to be as described.
For websites that already use Cloudflare, there is little reason not to turn this feature on, as we have at Prostasia Foundation. We particularly recommend that you should do so if you allow users to post content to your website, and if you don’t have the resources to implement one of the other solutions. Cloudflare’s CSAM Scanning Tool receives our top overall rating.
Perhaps the least well known of the CSAM scanning solutions that are available for public implementation is Facebook’s PDQ algorithm. Facebook released the source code of this product in August 2019 as its own in-house alternative to PhotoDNA. Released at the same time was a related algorithm, TMK+PDQF, which is used for hash matching of video content—a capability that isn’t included in any of the other solutions reviewed here.
Microsoft’s choice to limit the distribution of its PhotoDNA code is an approach of “security through obscurity,” which is one reason why a detailed analysis of how it works is not available. Because Facebook’s PDQ code has been released as free and open source software, it does not suffer from this same limitation. This allows programmers and agencies from around the world to pick it over, find bugs, and potentially to improve it.
The code was reviewed by computer scientists from Monash University and the Australian Federal Police in an article that was published in December 2019. The authors of that paper found:
It is a robust and well performing algorithm in the uses for which it was designed—format, resolution and compression changes result in near perfect performance, closely followed by ‘light-touch’ alterations such as text. Heavier, “adversarial” changes (as described by the project authors) such as the addition of a title screen, watermarking and cropping beyond marginal levels result in rapid performance drops.
What this means, in short, is that it’s a decent alternative to PhotoDNA—but that it can still be overcome. Since our testing revealed similar shortcomings in PhotoDNA (at least using the cloud service version and the supplied test images), we have rated the products as mostly equivalent… but with the advantage that PDQ is more accessible, since it is freely available to anyone who wishes to use it.
One downside of PDQ, particularly when compared with Cloudflare’s solution, is that it will require some custom implementation. Facebook only provides the bare bones of a PDQ-based solution. A bigger downside is that Facebook’s solution doesn’t come with access to a database of image hashes, such as those maintained by NCMEC. Therefore, unless you are fortunate enough to have access to a PDQ-compatible database of CSAM image hashes (as far as we know, none are publicly available), you can’t use PDQ to scan for known CSAM, and could only use it as a supplementary filter for images that you want to block locally.
None of the solutions presented here is a panacea. Despite the popular notion that Internet companies have it within their control to stop child sexual abuse online, they don’t. In fact, the entire notion that censorship and criminalization will be sufficient to eliminate CSAM is unfounded: that approach has failed. Removing CSAM from the web, without addressing the root causes that cause people to upload and share those images in the first place, is just fighting fires. Experts agree: it’s long past time for governments, child safety groups, and industry alike to abandon their myopic focus on censorship, and to embrace a comprehensive, primary prevention approach.
With all that said, when it’s your website that’s on fire, fire-fighting is still needed. For too long however, access to CSAM scanning technology has been closely guarded by a cartel of government-approved censorship service providers, and by the largest tech companies who are given privileged access to these tools. This mistaken attempt at “security through obscurity” has meant that some of the websites that are least able to eliminate CSAM through manual content moderation, also have the least access to technical tools that could help automate this process.
Over the last year, this has begun to change, with the release of several new technical tools for CSAM filtering aimed at platforms of different sizes and with different needs. The most promising of these, and our overall recommendation, is Cloudflare’s CSAM Scanning Tool, due to its simplicity of operation. Cloudflare could do more to encourage its members to use the tool, and we would also like to see its next release being made more configurable. In a solid second place, we also recommend Microsoft’s PhotoDNA cloud service, although implementing it is a slightly more involved process for the website administrator.
Are you a website operator who has attempted to implement CSAM scanning, or has plans to do so? We would be interested to hear about your experiences in the comments.
If you have encountered illegal content involving minors online, you can learn how to report it here.