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The Feds Are Dropping Child Porn Cases Instead of Revealing Their Surveillance Systems

The Department of Justice has been dismissing child pornography cases in order to not reveal information about the software programs used as the basis for the charges. An array of cases suggest serious problems with the tech tools used by federal authorities. But the private entities who developed these tools won’t submit them for independent inspection or hand over hardly any information about how they work, their error rates, or other critical information. As a result, potentially innocent people are being smeared as pedophiles and prosecuted as child porn collectors, while potentially guilty people are going free so these companies can protect “trade secrets.” The situation suggests some of the many problems that can arise around public-private partnerships in catching criminals and the secretive digital surveillance software that it entails (software that’s being employed for far more than catching child predators).

With the child pornography cases, “the defendants are hardly the most sympathetic,” notes Tim Cushing at Techdirt. Yet that’s all the more reason why the government’s antics here are disturbing. Either the feds initially brought bad cases against people whom they just didn’t think would fight back, or they’re willing to let bad behavior go rather than face some public scrutiny. An extensive investigation by ProPublica “found more than a dozen cases since 2011 that were dismissed either because of challenges to the software’s findings, or the refusal by the government or the maker to share the computer programs with defense attorneys, or both,” writes Jack Gillum. Many more cases raised issues with the software as a defense. “Defense attorneys have long complained that the government’s secrecy claims may hamstring suspects seeking to prove that the software wrongly identified them,” notes Gillum. “But the growing success of their counterattack is also raising concerns that, by questioning the software used by investigators, some who trade in child pornography can avoid punishment.”