Automatic Crime Reporting Algorithms Can Hurt Innocent People — And DoIt’s no secret the internet at large has its dark sides. Crime is rampant and often unchecked, in all levels of severity, because people can be relatively unsupervised and anonymous.  What better to combat this technological problem than with more technology? One especially heinous crime with an unfortunate internet popularity is child pornography and abuse. And so, some internet giants like Google have developed algorithms meant to catch and automatically report any instances of child abuse it finds. The intentions are good, but the thing is that technology isn’t perfect, because the humans who make it aren’t perfect.

The wrong kind of mistake has the potential of ruining an innocent person’s life, even if humans are later able to intervene. A family experienced this firsthand after coming under police investigation when the Google algorithm tagged a picture of their toddler’s groin area, which they had sent to their doctor, as child pornography. They didn’t just get investigated; the father’s (who owned the account with the message) email account was shut down, locking him out of his own cell number and losing important contact information, precious documents, and other records.

Eventually, investigators did determine the family committed no crime, but permanent damage was done. Google refused to reinstate the father’s account, meaning all that data (collected invasively to boot) is lost forever, and it still could have been so much worse. As if that’s not enough of a bummer, this is only one documented instance of this sort of thing happening. This same algorithm filed over 600,000 reports of alleged child abuse in 2021 alone — who knows how many accused were innocent and just unable to speak out?

Accusations that involve the immediate danger of another person, especially a child, carry serious weight and can cause serious harm if those accused don’t take steps to protect themselves immediately. That’s why the issue here isn’t the mere reporting of potential child abuse, it’s the automated, unmoderated, and invasive way the reporting is happening. Someone should only be accused of something so severe if there is definitive proof of it happening — and that decision should not be left to technology we’re still figuring out how to control and implement.

Domestic violence accusations carry serious weight in Annapolis

Google algorithms aren’t the first time people have unwittingly created systems that get innocent people in serious trouble. They always have good intentions, of course, but those intentions are centered solely around supporting alleged victims, which makes sense on the surface given how many are in active danger. The law needs to be even to be fair, though. So, when something is skewed towards one side, the other side is left weak and unprotected. It’s not that abusers should be protected, it’s that it shouldn’t be so easy for innocent people to be branded as one.

Maryland’s overly-generous considerations towards the prosecution have led to a domestic violence/child abuse legal system almost anyone can get on the wrong side of. And yes, child abuse is technically a form of domestic violence, but they do carry their own charges and penalties. Their treatment in court is where they have the most in common — namely, the fact that there doesn’t need to be much evidence against you at all for you to get arrested and charged. You don’t even need to be accused by someone related to the situation because it’s the state that files these sort of charges. This means as long as a cop suspects you’re guilty, you can expect to be treated as such. Since neither typical domestic violence nor child abuse requires the presence of physical injuries to be charged as a crime, it’s easy to see how innocent people could get tangled up in this. One well-meaning but uninformed stranger can take almost anything, online or not, out of context and use it to jeopardize your family.

In cases of domestic abuse, you can lose access to your children, your home, and your job as soon as you’re even accused. You won’t have any chance to defend yourself before this decision for such a protective order happens. And, of course, you can expect to have all your personal data, accounts, and conversations meticulously picked apart by the prosecution after you’re in custody, because they still WANT as much evidence as possible to use against you even if they don’t need it.

When it comes to child abuse specifically, it could lead to more than just the other parent getting full custody — it could lead to the state intervening and taking your child away completely, forcing you to fight a separate battle just to get them back. Those found guilty of child abuse or neglect face at least five years in prison and thousands in fines on top of all these collateral penalties and a permanent stain on the reputation.

Protecting yourself and your family from false accusations

There is no way to know just how many domestic violence proceedings involve wholly innocent defendants, but we do know Maryland typically serves several thousand protective orders a year. Scores and scores of citizens may be as innocent as the family accused of abuse by an algorithm, and we simply don’t know. This doesn’t mean you should live your life in fear and get rid of all your technology, but it does mean you shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming it won’t happen to you.

It can always happen to you. It doesn’t, however, always have to lead to convictions and a total loss of custody. The best thing you can do is know the proper steps to protect yourself if you ever find yourself in a situation like this:

  • Hire an attorney IMMEDIATELY. The sooner you hire them, the sooner they can get started on your defense.
  • Do not post a single solitary thing about your case on any social media, and don’t delete anything that’s already there, either. They can find it, and they’ll use it against you.
  • Be honest with your attorney so you can prepare for curveballs and mitigating factors, and get the best defense possible.
  • Don’t be afraid to be picky about your criminal defense attorney. It matters, as does the quality of representation you receive.

No matter the steps, no matter your innocence, no matter the situation, facing any sort of domestic violence charges is a terrifying, isolating experience. You’ll be judged unfairly even if you’re never found guilty, even if it wasn’t an actual human that accused you. Hiring an attorney puts someone you can trust on your team who can shoulder the bulk of the legal burdens and fight on your behalf.

Here in Annapolis, that’s how the team at Drew Cochran, Attorney at Law, makes a living. We take pride in helping people just like you fight unfair charges and devastating consequences. To learn how we can help, call us at 410-271-1892 or use our contact form. Don’t let anyone convince you there’s nothing to be done, but also, don’t let anyone convince you this is nothing to take seriously.

Just remember — Keep Calm, and Call Drew!