The National Institute of Justice has struck a deal with a nonprofit organization to develop technology to aid the search for missing children using the Internet.
The NIJ, which serves as the research agency of the Justice Department and sponsors projects designed to reduce or prevent crime, has awarded a $3.5 million contract to ANSER, a public service research institute, to develop a system to speed the recovery of missing children by integrating so-called intelligent software agents and facial recognition technology to search, access, and report relevant information found on the Net.
The mainstream media have covered many cases of children being exploited or abducted because of contact with others met via the Internet, especially through chat rooms in popular online services such as America Online. Recently, when AOL decided to cut back on its staff that monitors chats, it held on to those in charge of the spaces designed for children. (See related story)
In this instance, however, the Internet and interactive technology are being used to recover missing children.
The system's first application is for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and will assist case managers in searching the Internet for relevant information and possible facial matches of missing or exploited youngsters.
It also will be used on other networks, as well as computer databases of information, photos, and video for other agencies that deal with missing children.
"We're trying to advance existing state-of-the-art facial recognition technology," said Jeff Boushell, manager of the special projects division of ANSER.
He said the facial recognition technology "maps certain segments of a person's face" and then compares various features to find a match. Agencies can use the technology by "grabbing images that reside on the Internet and making some matches using that imagery," Boushell said.
"One challenge is that children's faces change so quickly when they're young," he noted. Part of the project will be to deal with the "age progression issue" by advancing technology that shows how a child could look as he or she matures.
Another aspect of the project will be to improve upon software agents that help law enforcement agencies make connections in ongoing cases, as well as aid in searches.
Boushell added the grant should last about two years, "but we expect to be involved in these projects for much longer." ANSER will open a new office in Fairmont, West Virginia, to work on the project.
The NIJ supports research, evaluation, and demonstration programs, development of technology, and dissemination of information nationally and internationally.