Sharp increase in child abuse images on open internet

July 18th 2014

The number of reports of child abuse images uploaded to the internet has increased dramatically, the BBC reports, including pictures posted to publicly accessible areas of social networking sites.

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The US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) received a record number of reports in the first week of this month, four times the weekly average.

This week in the UK alone, 660 people were apprehended in connection with online child abuse as part of an investigation targeted at abusers using the 'dark net' – which generally needs special software to access it to upload and view content. However, the NCMEC stressed there is also still a significant and growing challenge for law enforcement agencies to deal with material on the openly-accessible internet.

All electronic communications providers in the US have had to report any instance of child abuse on their networks to the NCMEC's Cyber Tipline. Many popular social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest are based in the US, so the Center works with authorities around the world – including those in the UK – to follow up leads provided via the Tipline. The first week in July saw nearly 93,000 reports to the Tipline, of which an overwhelming majority came for internet firms. This compares with an average week of around 15,000 reports.

John Shehan is Executive Director of the NCMEC's Exploited Children Division. He told the BBC: "You wouldn't think someone would do it on Pinterest or LinkedIn, but any type of platform that allows people to post images for videos – they get used for the wrong reasons." He continued: "When you look at the types of offenders who have a sexual interest in children, there is a wide spectrum as far as their internet knowledge, and their backgrounds with being able to anonymise and hide their identities online. If you look at where the content is being uploaded from – sometimes we see that it goes back to third-world countries. Some of these are just starting to get high-speed internet access, and they may not be as sophisticated as some countries in using different anonymisers."

All of the social networks that report to the Center say that the latest technology for detecting known images of child abuse and alert authorities is deployed across their sites.

Susie Hargreaves, Chief Executive of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) – the UK-based group that actively targets illegal content online – said: "Due to the cooperation we have with the online industry in the UK less than 1% of child sexual abuse imagery is hosted here, down from 18% in 1996."  Ms Hargreaves echoed the NCMEC's concerns that child abuse images were increasingly being spread on the open internet. "This isn't a problem which is only found in hidden areas of the internet," she told the BBC. "We now have 12 analysts who are still working full time and due to our ability to proactively seek out the images and videos, we're able to identify around three times as many URLs as last year."

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