Online child abuse flourishes as investigators struggle with workload during pandemic

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Teams of undercover investigators and analysts tasked with identifying and removing webpages containing pictures and videos of child abuse have reported a massive spike in activity during the outbreak of Covid-19.

There has been an increase of over 200 per cent in posts on known child sex abuse forums that link to downloadable images and videos hosted on the clearnet (regular internet accessible by the public), specialist cybersecurity company Web-IQ told the Fuller Project.

In February, Web-IQ identified 2,790 links that they believed were ‘highly likely to point to child abuse material’. In March, the number soared to 9,255. There were a total of 40,000 posts across the forums the same month.

On top of this, the amount of child abuse material being removed from the internet has plummeted by 89 per cent in four weeks, according to The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), a UK charity responsible for finding and removing images and videos of children suffering abuse on the web. 

Twice a day, the charity updates a ’URL List’, a list of web pages (URLs) found to contain abusive material. Either uncovered by one of their analysts or reported by the public anonymously, companies – such as the search engine Bing, or mobile operators like EE – then use the list to block access to those webpages so criminal content is not available through their services. Once the material is taken down, the URL comes off the list. 

Between 16 February and 15 March 2020, investigators successfully removed 14,947 URLs around the world. Exactly one month later, just 1,498 URLs were taken down. 

Girls make up ninety per cent of those featured in child abuse materials online, said Fred Langford, Deputy CEO of IWF.

Investigators are struggling to remove the materials during the pandemic for a number of reasons. Due to social distancing restrictions, the IWF’s analysts are working at 50 per cent capacity, and have reduced their output.

The companies that receive their Notice and Takedown notifications are taking longer to respond, again due to reduced resources, while many of the hotlines used to report the abuse in countries including France, Spain and Croatia closed temporarily at various points during the pandemic.

The entire supply chain has been reduced, explains Langford of IWF. “People are processing, recording and sending off notices but they’re unable to keep chasing up, to keep pushing and reminding: ‘get this taken down.’”

“You’re trying to do a job that you’d normally have 10 screens for and a big terabyte base computer, and now suddenly you’re on your own Hewlett Packard laptop sitting in your kitchen,” added Neil Walsh, Chief of the Cybercrime and Anti-Money Laundering Section for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. “It gets really difficult.”

Europe has become the center of the child sexual exploitation industry, the IWF annual report also revealed, with nine out of ten web pages hosted by European web servers. The majority of the abusive material is stored in the Netherlands, predominantly due to its strong and speedy digital infrastructure and laws around freedom of expression. Together, these factors make the country a prime destination for internet companies, who in turn offer low-cost hosting services. 

He mentioned one organisation provider using servers in the Netherlands for illegal activities, including hosting child abuse material, but as they’re currently being investigated he said he could not go into details. While the larger industry players are “very responsible”, he said, it’s often the smaller hosting providers who fall under the radar that have a higher percentage of abusive content. Again, Langford said he was unable to mention names. 

By contrast, less than one per cent of abusive material is hosted in the UK, according to the IWF. Yet experts say it’s important to scrutinise both ends of the spectrum.

“If 95 per cent of CSAM [child sexual abuse material] is hosted in Europe, then 81 per cent of the actual images are from Asia, Africa and Europe,” said Marija Manojlovic, Strategy and Innovation Advisor and Child Online Safety Lead at the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children. “The abuse often happens on the opposite end of things, which tells you about the digital divide, and the vulnerability of different types of populations and kids.”

One country with particularly high rates of exploitation is the Philippines, where free, high-speed internet and widespread poverty have collided to create a hotbed of online abuse. “We see plenty of live streaming, where children – especially young, preverbal infants – have been abused and tortured in broadcasts to generate funding,” said Walsh. “Often in very economically deprived circumstances, to feed their siblings to feed others in their village.”

Those working to protect children online say this is an issue they’re seeing replicated all over the world. Pilar Ramirez is the Director of Child Protection and Legal Affairs at the International Centre for Missing And Exploited Children — an American non-governmental organisation with offices in Brazil and Singapore. She described one case earlier this month, involving a girl in her early teens who discovered that her boyfriend had shared an explicit photo of her on Instagram. The girl’s mother contacted the authorities, but nothing happened. 

“They are not doing investigations about this issue now,” said Ramirez, adding that it would normally take law enforcement four or five hours to resolve a case like that. Since Covid-19, it’s started taking up to five days to get pictures removed. “We’re reporting and reporting and nothing is happening.” 

It’s not just a matter of governments reassigning specialist investigators to watch over borders and enforce strict lockdown protocols. The lack of necessary technology in low-income countries is also causing delays. “Many members of law enforcement don’t have access to the internet at home,” said Ramirez. “They don’t have a computer, or it’s one computer for all the family.” 

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For children who are victims of abuse over the internet, the repercussions can be grave. 

In 2017, researchers from the National Competence Centre in Child Abuse in Sweden attempted to measure post traumatic stress for children who had experienced different kinds of sexual abuse. Children who demonstrated the most symptoms of PTSD were those who had been trafficked into the commercial sex industry. Next on the scale were those who had had their abuse documented and distributed online — or were being threatened that it would be.

The IWF are urging hotlines and abuse teams across the globe to be aware of the slow down in material being removed, and to do what they can, within their ability, to help. In Latin America, child rights organisations are asking internet users to report instances of abusive material to national authorities rather than more well-known international organisations, in the hope that seeing the numbers will dissuade local governments from diverting specialist law enforcement agents towards Covid-19.

On a larger scale, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) are calling for platforms to disclose their number of child endangerment reports in a bid to understand the scale of the threat, and for technology firms to share intelligence. 

“If platforms had been required to do a better job of making their sites safe heading into this crisis, then the risks wouldn’t be as significant as they now are,” said Andy Burrows, NSPCC’s Head of Child Safety Online Policy.

Walsh is fearful of what will happen to rates of online abuse when governments put all their money into managing Covid-19. “The care system, ventilators and vaccine development are absolutely key priority number one,” he said. “But real life continues to go on around this. And if we forget all the other stuff, and then come back in two years time and think, oh isn’t that a mess? Well, maybe we could have predicted that. And we can predict this.”

  • This article is a collaboration between the Telegraph and The Fuller Project, where both authors are correspondents.

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