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How Google and other tech firms fight child exploitation

(Photo by: Robert Bird/ Courtesy of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children)

Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt accepted a major award from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Tuesday night, at a benefit that highlighted how technology can help fight child abuse.

Schmidt and Google were honored at NCEMEC's annual Hope Awards dinner for the company's partnership with the center to solve crimes and raise awareness. Google is also a major benefactor of the center.

In his acceptance speech, Schmidt said that the firm's work with the center is largely driven by rank-and-file employees. Google allows its workers to devote 20 percent of their work hours to passion projects -- many, he said, have chosen to work with NCMEC. Employees can also apply for a fellowship so they can work at the center full-time developing technical solutions to combat the spread of images and videos depicting child pornography online.

Google has developed tools to recognize images of child pornography online as part of the fellowship, he said.

"It's a really interesting technical problem,"  Schmidt said. "It's a problem that's never been solved before in the way Google and the National Center" have gone about it.

Linda Krieg, acting chief executive for the NCMEC, said that the organization places great value on its partnerships with Google and other technology firms.

Tech, she said, has transformed the way the center operates. For example, the group releases updated, age-progressed pictures of abducted children every two years to aid in search efforts.

"We can keep their faces alive," she said.

The Internet, of course, can be a dangerous place for children -- several of the speakers mentioned Internet predators, and Kreig herself said that the problem of child pornography is "exploding."

"Last year, we got 1.1 million reports of child pornography" online, Krieg said. That was a record -- one that's since been smashed within just the first three months of 2015.

To help raise awareness, Google also provides a major platform for everyday people to find out more about the problems of child exploitation and to help victims find the help they need.

In his speech, for example, Schmidt highlighted a tool built into Google search that displays the NCMEC hotline number as the top search result whenever someone searches for a term such as "child exploitation." He called on other tech firms to take similar measures -- particularly as young people rely more on social networks and the Web to communicate.

NCMEC has worked with several firms, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Carfax and LexisNexis to spread the word about missing children and provide law enforcement officials with details they may need for their investigations.  Facebook also recently integrated AMBER alerts into its news feed.

"We cannot do our job without them," Kreig said. The technology that Google and others have developed have a multiplying effect on what the center can do, she said.