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Child Exploitation Tracking System (CETS) is a Microsoft software based solution and Microsoft sales/product marketing campaign targeting Law Enforcement worldwide. This is a sales activity that markets the Microsoft platform to law enforcement through a "shared cost" software tool that assists in managing and linking cases (across jurisdictions) related to child protection. CETS was developed in collaboration with law enforcement in Canada. Administered by the loose partnership of Microsoft and law enforcement agencies, CETS offers tools to gather and share evidence and information so they can identify, prevent and punish those who commit crimes against children.

About the CETS partnership

In 2003 a police officer in the Canadian Royal Mounted Police (RCMP) made a request directly to Bill Gates, CEO and Chief Architect at Microsoft at the time, for assistance with these types of crimes (reference: RCMP Background). Due to the nature of these crimes, the response and commitment from Microsoft was a quick, emotional one. Additionally, Microsoft executives envisioned a small investment "citizenship" partnership that would provide disproportionally large marketing potential. However, the requirements and investment for building a system that could address Law Enforcement needs grew beyond expectations. Agencies experienced in tracking and apprehending those who perpetrate such crimes were involved in the design, implementation, and policy. The solution needed to assist law enforcement agencies from the initial point of detection, through the investigative phase, to arrest, prosecution, and conviction of the criminal. In addition, it was imperative that the solution adhered to existing rights and civil liberties of the citizens of the various countries. This included remaining independent of Internet traffic and any individual user’s computer. Finally, such a solution needed to be global in nature and enable collaboration among nations and agencies. In order to increase the effectiveness of investigators worldwide, such a system would allow law enforcement entities to:

  • Collect evidence of online child exploitation gathered by multiple law enforcement agencies.
  • Organize and store the information safely and securely.
  • Search the database of information.
  • Securely share the information with other agencies, across jurisdictions.
  • Analyze the information and provide pertinent matches.
  • Adhere to global software industry standards.

Microsoft has published a detailed marketing and promotional piece that provides a non-critical overview of this effort: About The Microsoft Child Exploitation Tracking System.

A complicating factor across many technology based solutions, the issues and limitations of the CETS software solution are not due to constraints of technology but rather to issues in political/business policies and processes [people]. There is generally inadequate cooperation, communication, and coordination across jurisdictional, law enforcement agency, and political/country boundaries. Microsoft has been an important technology leader in this arena; however, no single Law Enforcement body has demonstrated effective leadership, vision, or ability to address the non-technical challenges facing global/international crimes on the Internet. CETS deployments are truly only useful if they aggregate and share [appropriate] information across organizational and political boundaries. Crimes against children on the Internet span all manner of political and geographical boundaries; to date, all CETS deployments are stand alone systems isolated within their own country (at best) and their own organization (at worst). Law Enforcement investigators generally still communicate among one another through informal channels - many keep in touch through informal Facebook associations, email, and phone (actual voice). The CETS tool has been deployed without a strategy to share data [appropriately] among Law Enforcement and some instances of CETS are used as case/file management tool only and not for the intended advanced sharing and image analytics. In many instances, CETS is deployed where a much more cost effective tool and process could be. The fanfare of high-end technology launches and Microsoft-sponsored marketing/public relations events where CEO Steve Ballmer signs partnership agreements with a political official have grown stale and ring hollow. Many front line investigators stoically worry that limited resources siphoned away for CETS could better serve the front line police work in some other way to solve crimes against children worldwide.

Additionally, the CETS activity has been run as a product marketing campaign by Microsoft, distorting it into one-off deployments based upon many drivers other than proven need or capability of the recipient agencies. Microsoft has led the deployment of CETS across the globe without addressing its own inherent conflict of interest. Unwritten, and perhaps taboo, it is said within Microsoft that "Microsoft donates a platform in order to sell more of the platform." This will remain the case as long as there is a leadership & capability vacuum across Law Enforcement internationally. The breadth approach (many deployments) in which Microsoft is engaged rather than targeted approach (fewer/central) may evidence this fact. The costs of these deployments and tool development are also problematic. Microsoft has invested in excess of USD 12 Million in developing and deploying the tool with extremely short-sighted attempts at a long-term sustainability strategy to support the extant community worldwide. Since CETS is a "shared cost" tool, the recipient Law Enforcement Agency must absorb a share of the costs for deployment and they must sign and pay for a premier service contract with Microsoft. So the overall costs to Law Enforcement worldwide are proportional. The underlying Microsoft business strategy has been to introduce the "premier service offerings" on a smaller scale in order to expand its customer base.

There are no public numbers on the cost/benefit of CETS to Microsoft sales; however, deployments are only increasing, as are costs, and marketing returns are said to be down. CETS has been labeled by "some" senior Microsoft managers and executives as Old News.

Law enforcement partnerships worldwide

A number of law enforcement agencies use or are deploying the CETS tool, these include:

Australia: High Tech Crime Centre
Brazil: Federal Police
Canada: Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Toronto Police Services Sex Crime Unit, & Twenty-six other Canadian police services
Chile: National Investigative Police
Indonesia: National Police
Italy: Ministry of Interior and Postal Police
Romania: National Police
Spain: Interior Ministry
United Kingdom: Serious Organized Crime Agency & Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre
United States: Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation

• In Planning for 2010-2011: Poland, Argentina and United Arab Emirates.

Criticisms, ulterior motives, and pitfalls

Donations of software and solutions are problematic and public private partnerships to develop such are equally so. "Partnerships take many forms, are inherently complex, and management intensive. Even between similar ICT businesses, they have a high rate of failure. In the early 1990s, studies by consulting firms McKinsey, Booz Allen Hamilton, and Dataquest found that half of all such partnerships failed in that they destroyed, rather than added, shareholder value or ended in dissolution." [1]

Microsoft competitors have stated that such activity unfairly makes inroads into agencies and sectors (i.e. Law enforcement agencies with CETS).[2] Additionally, support business models are difficult to sustain long-term using the donation model - Law Enforcement agencies will be put at risk should they develop dependencies on a software solution unless there is a long-term business model with clear accountabilities put into place. Questions that any agency or government should ask themselves when considering such a partnership with the private sector:

  • what is the long-term commitment and lifecylce planning?
  • how do I create my own business model?
  • how should I leverage the partnership for short term dependencies only?
  • what is my exit strategy from this partnership?

These questions and more likely apply to any public-private partnership activity. Private sector business models change rapidly with market conditions. So it is understandable that long-term commitments from Microsoft and any of its competitors will be questionable if the partnerships are not clearly defined and finite.

It is very important to note: Microsoft's Child Exploitation Tracking System (CETS) represents a long term dependency with no clear roadmap for Law Enforcement agencies on which they may stake their business and operational models. Sources at Microsoft have reported that in 2009 Microsoft began backing out of support for CETS by eliminating both the Redmond-based CETS Program Manager and the Technical Project Manager roles. Additionally, in 2010 the Microsoft Worldwide Public Sector sales organization, responsible for CETS for the past seven years, has cut support completely. As stated above, since CETS is a complex and management intensive endeavor, Microsoft's continued scaling back in this way puts all law enforcement using this tool at risk. Law Enforcement should cautiously manage and consider any dependencies in regards to the CETS tool and develop their own contingency plans accordingly to minimize dependencies on Microsoft. Finally, since the inception of CETS, police agencies continue to develop and utilize other software solutions, separate from CETS and enjoy much greater benefits from those solutions. As a result, CETS enjoys limited use by Law Enforcement; with Microsoft's continued retreat, it is not likely to improve in the future.

Other links

Notes and references

  1. Paul Ulrich, Public-Private Partnerships and Financing ICT Developments, pg 3
  2. Apple joins critics of Microsoft deal
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