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Computer Scientists Help Hunt Child Predators

04-25-2012
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Detective Daniel Ichige, project manager for SVICAC, Chaoyi Du, and Calvin Liang (left to right). Photo by Alex Fedosov.

New software applications created by University of San Francisco computer science students forgo the “gotcha” moment of Dateline NBC’s “To Catch a Predator,” but are designed to help police capture child sex predators just the same. 

Three programs, developed last fall by graduate students Chaoyi Du ’12, Chengzhi (Calvin) Liang ’12, and alum Xinli Feng ’11, crawl the web hunting for child pornography. The programs then track the files and compile dossiers on the as-yet unknown people illegally trading it.

A fourth program, developed by undergraduate Simon Piel ’12, uses information gathered by the three-program suite by identifying specific culprit computers and therefore individuals that share such files over peer-to-peer networks. 

The programs were designed with guidance from the Silicon Valley Internet Crimes Against Children (SVICAC) Task Force, which includes the eleven Bay Area counties, the FBI, and others. Du, Liang, and Feng’s suite of applications won best project at USF’s Computer Science Night in December. Piel’s wireless network analysis application earned runner-up.

“As a CS professor at USF, I believe we should be utilizing technology in the service of humanity,” said Patricia Francis-Lyon, assistant professor of computer science, who advised the three graduate students.

Francis-Lyon and her son Sean, a software engineer at online game company IMVU, conceived of the project, drawing inspiration from USF business Professor David Batstone’s Not For Sale Campaign, an international nonprofit that combats human trafficking, and discussions with David J. Johnson, a retired San Jose police detective who was previously a member of SVICAC. Piel’s project was conceived of and advised by Eunjin Jung, USF assistant professor of computer science.

These tools come just in time for National Child Abuse Prevention Month, which is April, and will or have the potential to help authorities use technology in new ways to immeasurably improve FBI and police efforts to build cases against criminals who harm children, Johnson said. “The sheer volume of traffic in contraband files is so vast that it has been compared to trying to catch a cup of water from a running fire hose,” Johnson said.

SVICAC plans to fine-tune the programs through beta testing in the coming months, and then, hopefully, share them with similar taskforces throughout the nation, said SVICAC commander Sgt. Greg Lombardo.

Liang, who focused mostly on game development as an undergraduate computer science student, said he didn’t realize how big a deal the project was until officers saw a demonstration of what the USF students’ programs could do. “They told us it would have a real-world impact,” said Liang, who, as a result, has become more interested in the data-mining side of software development.

The four programs could be just the beginning with more research and development to come on the topic, said Piel, who hopes additional USF students take up the cause and improve on what’s already been done.

by Ed Carpenter | Office of Communications and Marketing »email usfnews@usfca.edu | Twitter @usfcanews