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Sex crimes unit already overwhelmed, and EU lawmakers will only make it worse

Dutch sex crimes investigators are already overloaded: sexual abuse victims have to wait far too long for their cases to be heard. The European Commission has plans that will only make this worse by generating a plethora of, often unjustified, reports.

Disastrous proposal

A bill to crack down on online child abuse is currently being discussed in Brussels. The aim is admirable, but the proposal disastrous: it puts the confidentiality of communicationsBy limiting the use of encryption online confidentiality is abolished at risk. With such a law in place, the government could force companies to monitor their users' chats, when in fact these chats are protected with end-to-end encryption. In doing so, this law harms everyone, including the very children and young people it aims to protect.

The problem is too big to waste time and energy on measures that do not work.

To be clear: child sexual abuse is horrific and a big problem. That means that, as a society, we cannot afford to spend energy on counterproductive measures. Staring blindly at technology is simply irresponsible. At best, it will boost the image of a few politicians.

Bad by nature

European lawmakers want to be able to force companies to detect grooming. This would have to be fully automated, using computers and artificial intelligence. There is a lot wrong with that. First, it means that those companies, by order of the government, would have to monitor the communications of all their users in an untargeted way (a "general monitoring obligation" in legal jargon). Second, it means jettisoning end-to-end encryptionHow client side device scanning breaks end-to-end encryption, as this would get in the way of such an obligation. Finally, the technology companies would use, is notoriously bad at understanding context: an erotic conversation between two teenagers is something completely different than an adult trying to groom a child.

Grading your own homework

Anyone wanting to deploy this type of technology, will need to prepare for a large number of unjustified reports. Each of those reports is a wrongful accusationThis is not just a theoretical risk, it is horrible reality for some people already. That in itself is incredibly intense, but to make matters worse an accusation like this can haunt you for a very long time. In addition, every unjustified report means wasted investigative capacity that is not put into effective measures. The European Commission, however, believes in this technology. Based on what, you ask? Well: based on the word of the developersThe source for this claim: documents from the European Commission of the technology in question. To be fair, it's the only source available, as, as far as we know, no independent and scientific research has been done into into the reliability of this type of technology.

The European proposal will only create even more reports. The Dutch police were crystal clear about this: "We cannot handle that."

Incidentally, the European Commission knows that a lot of errors are to be expected when trying to detect grooming this way. She is counting on ten percent of the reports to be be false positivesThe percentage is mentioned in a leak document of the Council. So, in at least one in ten cases, the police investigation will be a waste of capacity. The Commission, of course, is basing this number on the (optimistic) promises of the organisations providing the technology. The Commission refuses to commit to a minimum reliability rate for such technology. That would interfere with the law's "technology-neutral" nature, or so they argue.

Already overloaded

All of this while the police are already overloaded. For years now, Dutch police have not met agreed deadlines for handling cases. If it takes the police a year to start looking into your case, it becomes more difficult to uncover the truth. If you report a case now, you could easily have to wait two or three years before the case goes to courtDutch police was given millions to grow their capacity and yet could not scale up (in Dutch). That is, if you are not already discouraged beforehand. Partly due to the police's workload, the treatment of victims is substandard. For years, this has been a thorn in the side of the Dutch parliament. And despite millions added to the budget, research shows that the number of sex crimes investigators over the past years has not increased.

Capacity is also an issue when it comes to investigating grooming. The police called it "a challenge already" in a technical briefingHere's the recording of the technical briefing. The Police speaks after half an hour. (in Dutch) in parliament. The European proposal will only create even more reports, and in particular a very large amount of unjustified reports. The police were crystal clear about this in parliament: "We cannot handle it."

Assist and prevent victims

In short, if you really want to protect children and young people, you need to focus on effective measures. One such measure is increasing the capacity of the police and prosecutors. Because too often victims aren't helped, and perpetrators go unpunished. More attention should also be paid to counseling victims. As long as the reality is that we cannot help victims properly, more reports are of no use at all, and wasting time and energy on unjustified reports only makes the puzzle more complex. That is why the European Commission's proposal should go straight into the bin.

Blindly focusing on technology is absolutely irresponsible.

Blindly focusing on technology is absolutely irresponsible. Child sexual abuse is a serious problem and we can't afford to waste time and energy on measures that do not work, or that aggravate the problem. The bar must be set much higher, precisely because everyone agrees that children and young people should be allowed to ask the most of us.

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