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Mónika MERCZ: Missing children found by AI

When we picture a common goal towards which all or most nations might be willing to work together, a few things come to mind, with child protection being the front runner for a lot of people. I have previously briefly discussed what obstacles this goal might face in the digital age, but today I would like to propose a way in which technological advancements may be used to solve cases of missing children.

The technology in question is Artificial Intelligence, specifically softwares which are able to be used by law enforcement, citizens and companies for the purpose of sharing information and developing a notification system which could aid in solving this serious, world-wide problem. I firmly believe that cooperation in this field is the best way forward, but that requires several compromises when it comes to issues of AI regulation, data protection, child protection initiatives and so much more. Today, I aim to dive in and provide an outlook on what causes children to go missing, and on what issues arise in relation to the technological component of a possible international cooperation, all the while trying to provide a possible form of agreement for the sake of future generations.

The biggest threat to the effectiveness of child protection with the help of AI is that the existing legal framework is lacking, especially when it comes to international cooperation. According to Missing Children Europe’s annual review, well over 250,000 children go missing from the child protection system every year in Europe alone, 83% of whom are running away from home or are victims of illegal parental abduction and migration-related missing children.  As a consequence of the Russian offensive in 2022, this figure is now even higher, with many Ukrainian children going missing during the crisis. Seeing as the causes of disappearance listed above have a significant impact on the population and the effectiveness of child protection measures in different countries as well as in the region of the EU, support structures and policy objectives are needed at an international level. There have already been several cases – particularly in Asia – where children have been found using AI. Thinking within the framework of the geopolitical situation on this issue, a unified AI-based plan for finding missing children should be developed at least at the Eurasia region level, if not globally.

In India, 174 children go missing every day. A GUI application in Python has been developed to help find them, which can be used by the police to open new cases. The image of the missing person provided is processed by the back end and the relevant information is recorded. An Android application is also being developed to help with the system, and will be made available to the general public. The app will use a machine learning algorithm to compare user-submitted photos with those uploaded by the police to find missing persons as efficiently as possible. Possible matches, as well as the last location of the missing person when found, can be displayed.

This application would undoubtedly be useful in helping police do investigations. However, there are issues that come up when we propose using these systems on an international level – such as matters of surveillance and profiling. One of the most crucial aspects of the problem being the lack of harmonization on the legislation around data protection. Around the world, there are several approaches present, making it difficult to train an AI in a way that is acceptable for all parties. Furthermore, AI legislation is just beginning to emerge and might also differ significantly depending on the country’s relationship with AI technology. For example in India, where the issue of missing children is quite serious, the government has no plans to create legislation revolving around AI.

This is why a possible international cooperation should be based on common interests and should be preceded by discussions leading to a unified approach. In the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, there already exists a common legal framework to combat child exploitation. This framework includes national legislation and the promotion of the establishment of a national specialised body with the explicit mandate to lead, support and coordinate investigations against online child sexual abuse. While this cooperation can provide a good basis for general child protection, gaps in legislation on the age of consent, possession of child pornography, cyberbullying and child sexual abuse are issues to be addressed in the legislation. In Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam there is no clear definition of child pornography, while the legislation of Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam does not prohibit a person from possessing child pornography. Moreover, only three ASEAN countries are members of any global alliance in the field of international law enforcement. These are all problems which make the common policies in place less effective. However, the existing shortcomings could help us create an international system in which AI’s good qualities could be used to aid the work of law enforcement and notify the public of cases related to missing children.

What we need is to develop an appropriate and acceptable framework for data protection, with the main questions being where data can be stored, who has access to it and what comprehensive rules are in place that are proportionate to the objective to be achieved – finding and protecting children. To some extent, this system will be facilitated by the forthcoming EU AI legislation, which will classify AI into different categories based on the risk they pose.  Its application could help to ensure that a suitable AI-based application is used or even developed specifically for the purpose of finding missing children.

The law in any state cannot keep up with the development of technology, but it is also worth bearing in mind that AI is part of the black box in which we cannot see what is happening.  The programmer only has control over the information provided up to the very first, external level, and the behaviour of the machine may not match the desired action after it has passed through the black box. AI will therefore never be completely without risk, and by using it we run the risk that our lives will never be the same. The only question is whether the states that would be parties to an international cooperation on finding missing children could cooperate for a goal of such a goal of generally accepted importance: the answer to this question must be left to the politicians, lawyers and now increasingly to the AI experts of the future.

Mónika Mercz, JD, is specialized in English legal translation, Junior Researcher at the Public Law Center of Mathias Corvinus Collegium Foundation in Budapest while completing a PhD in Law and Political Sciences at the Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Budapest, Hungary. Mónika’s past and present research focuses on constitutional identity in EU Member States, with specific focus on essential state functions, data protection aspects of DNA testing, environment protection, children’s rights and Artificial Intelligence.

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