Aug 30, 2023 - Technology

Inside Marriott's fight against online child sex abuse

Illustration of a laptop with an open lock at the top

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A first-of-its-kind initiative is cracking down on the proliferation of child sexual abuse materials that could be accessed at major hotel chains across the U.S.

Driving the news: Marriott and Cisco shared details exclusively with Axios about the progress they've made so far in a new partnership with U.K.-based nonprofit the Internet Watch Foundation to detect and block websites sharing child sexual abuse materials (CSAM).

  • Marriott relies on Cisco's technology to automatically block a list of websites, regularly updated by the IWF, where users are known to discuss and spread such materials.

Why it matters: Marriott is one of the first major hotel chains to invest in spotting and stopping the spread of such images and videos on its networks.

  • The company estimates it's been able to block more than 200,000 attempts to access CSAM on its networks since it started deploying Cisco's technology in February.

The big picture: The amount of online child abuse imagery skyrocketed in the first months of the pandemic — and the number of reports about suspected CSAM has continued to grow in the years since, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

  • Hotels have always been a hotbed for human trafficking, and employees are typically trained to spot signs of this illicit activity on their properties.
  • But few hotel chains have made the technological investments needed to block customers from viewing illicit photos and videos online using the hotels' internet networks.

Zoom in: Marriott decided to invest in online CSAM detection tools after one of its franchise owners reported a spike in internet traffic to such materials at a non-Marriott property, Abbe Horswill, director of human rights and social impact at Marriott, told Axios.

  • While there's not much data on how often perpetrators access CSAM specifically on hotel networks, Marriott took this owner's report as a sign that this activity was likely spiking at its own properties too.

What they're saying: "We do know that anytime someone can use the internet, there's a potential that they can also access child sexual abuse materials," Horswill told Axios.

  • "We felt that [this initiative] was a natural extension of our responsibility and our commitment to combat some of the industry's highest-risk issues, and this was one that we were seeing firsthand, particularly amid the pandemic," she added.

Details: Marriott sought out the IWF to assist in providing a list of domain names known to host CSAM, and the company turned to one of its long-time technology providers, Cisco, to help block the suspicious URLs.

  • In November, Marriott started piloting Cisco's cloud-based, AI-enabled domain-blocking tool, which now includes information from the IWF's CSAM domain list by default.
  • By February, it was launching the technology across its first batch of properties.

Yes, but: Deploying this technology at every Marriott property isn't simple, since each property manages its network differently, Horswill said.

  • Marriott started by deploying the Cisco technology this spring at nearly 5,000 properties in the U.S. and Canada.
  • But the company has more than 8,500 properties across 139 countries — and those countries have different laws in place regulating internet access.

Between the lines: Cisco's domain-blocking tool can automatically update the list of blocked domain names as the IWF makes edits, Eric Wenger, senior director of technology policy at Cisco, told Axios.

  • The IWF typically updates its list twice daily and sometimes removes sites from the list as CSAM activity moves across the web.

What's next: Marriott, Cisco and the IWF are working on sharing the lessons from their partnership with other hospitality companies that are likely dealing with similar issues.

  • Marriott also plans to expand its technological deployments to more properties worldwide next year, as well as expand its use of Cisco's tech to also block piracy websites, Horswill said.

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