Convicted by Algorithms

Avatar sweetie entraps paedophiles

Trying to cyber with children will get you jailed in many other countries though, even if they do turn out to be chatbots

Are you allowed to arrest paedophiles if you have seduced them with a virtual avatar? Legal expert Bart Schermer investigated the matter. “Of course, it’s not a crime to fantasise.”

“I’m forced to spend my days in front of a webcam talking to men. They ask me to take off my clothes. They take off their clothes too, and play with themselves. And they ask me to play with myself. But what they don’t know is that I’m not real...”

Introducing “Sweetie”, a ten-year-old girl from the Philippines. She is a virtual avatar, designed by Terre des Hommes, the organisation that protects children’s rights. “She’s proved a great success in exposing paedophiles who pay to watch her do sexual acts in front of a camera”, explains Bart Schermer, a senior university lecturer who studies privacy law, regulation of the Internet and cybercrime.

Within a few months, the details of thousands of persons guilty of sexual abuse had been traced. According to Terre des Hommes, five men have already been convicted, thanks to the chatty avatar. But not in the Netherlands.

Schermer explains: “People are needed to make Sweetie 1.0. – to give her a name – work. And of course, those people can only handle a limited number of chats with the shady characters looking for webcam sex. But the problem is ginormous. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of cases. There simply isn’t enough manpower to deal with it. The solution is to program a computer that can hold conversations. Chatbots are advanced enough to respond to a person who wants webcam sex. So Sweetie 2.0 is completely virtual.”

But what are the legal implications? To find out, Terre des Hommes asked legal experts from Leiden and Tilburg to investigate the legal structure in quite a number of countries. “It turns out that using Sweetie under Dutch law could be problematic”, says Schermer. “Our criminal law focuses heavily on the criminal act. A suspect must have actually done all the elements mentioned in the description of the offence. In vice cases, our criminal law concentrates on indecent acts with persons under the age of eighteen. And that’s the catch with using Sweetie. She isn’t a real person, you see. It’s not clear whether having webcam sex with a virtual person is actually punishable by law in the Netherlands. In other countries, there is more scope for punishing someone who has the intention of doing something. For example, in Canada and Australia, all you need is the perpetrator to think he’s chatting to a real child.

Entrapment is another major issue. “In the Netherlands, you are not allowed to persuade someone to commit a criminal act. Using decoy adolescents to catch paedophiles is not allowed yet either. However, there’s a legislative proposal to allow such decoys. But even then, we’re talking about police officers pretending to be teenagers, not computers that hold conversations. If the amendment is passed, we’ll have solved the problem with Sweetie 1.0, but not that of the 2.0 version.”

So in short, we need to change the legislation on sexual offences if we want to use Sweetie in the Netherlands. “But then we run the risk of prosecuting someone who may have had other intentions than the police and the justice department suspect. Of course, it is not a crime in itself to think or fantasise about something. Mind you, I’ve seen the chats Sweetie has with paedophiles and, reading them, it’s quite obvious that they are indecent acts with a ‘child’. But I can think of instances in which that might be far less clear-cut.”

According to Schermer, fighting crime with information technology frequently raises new issues. “COMPAS, a program that calculates the chances of a criminal repeating the offence, is used in certain states of America. Perpetrators fill in a questionnaire, which produces a risk assessment that the court takes into account for its decision. So in fact, the jurisdiction is based in part on algorithms. One of the worrying aspects of this is that the company that produces COMPAS will not explain how their algorithm works, because it’s a company secret. So there is no way of checking that information.”

But that’s not the only problem. “It turns out that the software gives black perpetrators a higher risk score. The algorithm is racist. And that is simply scary. Ethnic profiling is already a problem, and then it manifests itself again in this kind of program. And people tend to think: “The computer doesn’t make mistakes”. But the computer is programmed by people. VB

Hunting, sheep and the privacy paradox

Much attention is paid to the dangers of leaving digital tracks on the Internet and sharing information on social networks. “It’s what I call the privacy paradox”, says Schermer. “When people are asked, they’ll say that privacy is quite important. But they still want to use all those great sites, which means they think using the sites is more important.

“Mind you, I’m really not an activist railing against social networks and so on. I’m also a partner in Considerati, a firm of legal consultants. Facebook is one of our clients. I use Twitter and Facebook, but I’m careful about the information I share. I don’t put my date of birth in my Facebook profile, so my birthday can’t be linked to certain other data.
“And it’s not so bad if companies want to use your details to send you personalised adverts. We all want to use those great services for free. Well, it costs, of course. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. “I’m more concerned about how government authorities handle sensitive information – information about taxes and healthcare.

“One of the propositions in my dissertation in 2007 was that there’d be no more privacy in twenty years’ time. If you want to protect your privacy nowadays, you’ll have to stop using the Internet. But that’s not an option. So it’s even more important to keep an eye on your tracks and what you share.” The government’s current attempts to protect our privacy have totally failed.

“I’ve always fiercely opposed the Cookie Act – which is now regarded as a failure, mainly because it doesn’t work. But the politicians wouldn’t listen. If someone wants those lovely red trainers on the Zalando website, he’s not going to be stopped by a cookie warning. You’re a hunter and it annoys you so you click the pop-up away and buy those trainers anyway.”

But what would work? “Perhaps a kind of software that lets you register the information you think is sensitive, information you don’t want to share, so you won’t be faced with annoying pop-ups on every site. You only get a warning if you’re asked something that conflicts with your database.

“People are like sheep when it comes to clicking, as I’ve said before now, with a slight exaggeration. No one reads the privacy statements for software before they download it. It could quite easily say that you are selling your soul to the devil. It’s not an easy problem to solve.” 


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