Online child sexual abuse is a global and ever-evolving problem. Every day, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), a charity dedicated to making the internet a safer place, identifies and removes online images and videos depicting the sexual abuse of children. These are either reported by members of the public or found directly by its staff.
This April, the IWF published their annual report which documented their actions against online child sexual abuse in 2017. The statistics in the report are disturbing:
- 80,318 of the 132,636 reports received in 2017 contained child sexual abuse images and videos – one report could contain one or thousands of images and videos.
- 43% of children appeared to be aged 11-15; 55% appeared to be 10 or younger.
- A third of the images were ‘Category A’, meaning sexual activity between adults and children, including rape and sexual torture.
- An increasing amount of child sexual abuse imagery is being hosted in Europe, a trend that continues from 2016.
- An 86% increase in the use of ‘disguised websites’, where child sexual abuse imagery is hidden on seemingly legal commercial adult pornography websites and therefore harder to identify and take down. This suggests that advances in technology are further enabling perpetrators to distribute and view abuse images.
Earlier this year, the National Centre for Social Research published a rapid evidence assessment about perpetrators of online child sexual abuse which we carried out for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. A clear finding was the importance of multi-agency partnerships – formed of information technology companies, law enforcement agencies, schools, health and social care providers and the third sector – in tackling the issue. Given the scale and complexity of online child sexual abuse, meaningful collaboration between partners facilitates efficient ways of working and enables knowledge sharing across organisations and geographies.
While our review found evidence of successful multi-agency partnerships, it also identified areas for improvement:
- Training: One study found that some police officers in the UK felt that their training about online child sexual abuse was insufficient, and they did not always feel equipped to investigate such cases. Recommendations centred on secondments or similar between police and ICT specialists to improve knowledge and information-sharing.
- Technology: Child abuse images can be given a unique code, known as a ‘hash’, which acts as a digital fingerprint. This provides investigators with a tool that can identify similar images across multiple sites, therefore speeding up the identification and take-down of images. However, ‘hash’ lists across different organisations are not always compatible, and the technology needed to centralise the unique codes for these images needs further development.
As one IWF analyst says in their annual report, ‘We never forget that each image we identify is a crime scene.’ That crime scene is replicated, and the victim is re-victimised, every time an abuse image is viewed or distributed.
Given the potential scale of victimisation and the lack of geographical boundaries, the importance of multi-agency partnerships in tackling online child sexual abuse images – both nationally and internationally – cannot be understated. Research and evaluation also have a role to play in supporting this, and is contingent on the research community keeping up with new and ever-evolving technologies.